John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a gunsmoke hazy, bloody-knuckle ruthless, impossibly badass Wickian continuation. Every offered and foreseeable ass is proficiently kicked. Or karate chopped. Or headshot combo’d. Or shotgun blasted into oblivion. Or attack dog mauled. Or body-slammed through glass. Or swordplay carved. Or pulverized. Or…you catch my drift. Director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad are three films into their action spectacle franchise, and each has raised the last’s ante. More of the same? Yeah, I’m thinking John’s back…again.
John Wick (Keanu Reeves) finds himself “Excommunicado” on the streets of New York City after killing Santino D’Antonio on Continental grounds. All card-holding rights revoked, blacklisted by Continental employees, and $14 million placed on his head. Can someone with Wick’s assassination skills survive against waves of contract killers hungry for his bounty? Especially while still recovering from his John Wick: Chapter 2 injuries? “Baba Yaga” earned his deathly nickname for a reason, but with the untouchable High Table’s “Adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon) ensuring disciplinary consequences correct behavior, Wick’s going to need more than a few holstered pistols to mount his defense.
Kolstad’s four-person screenwriting collective takes John Wick from New York City’s horse-and-carriage stables to Casablanca’s orangiest desert dunes, if only to exploit more exotic backdrops for Keanu’s master marksman to splatter brains against. One must accept that John Wick movies are filling in for 80s-era action headliners where plot doesn’t matter because Sly or Arnold bash henchmen senseless. Parabellum doesn’t hide narrative shortcomings in cyclicality, inconsequence and coincidences that work to keep Wick alive while reaching the next fight stage. Think video game architectures and button-mashing combination specials, leaning into divine melee mastery served on a silver platter to action fans.
Speaking of 80s action classics (or late 70s in this case), Parabellum excitedly lifts structural cues from The Warriors and Assault On Precinct 13. As John first hobble-jogs through Manhattan traffic, converging criminal hit squads dress in matching attire as the Baseball Furies or Gramercy Riffs might (except more business casual). John scampers through rival territories everywhere he goes, until Act II and Act III brings slaughterhouse chaos back into Winston’s (Ian McShane) Continental – hence the John Carpenter reference. Even Charon (Lance Reddick) cocks-and-locks when serving The Continental against the High Table’s bulletproof armed insurgents.
My point: can someone ink Stahelski and Kolstad for a modern The Warriors reboot with this same dapper-and-dangerous costume department?
I’ve long argued that Stahelski’s John Wick entries are the only American action films graceful and punishing enough to compete with next-level foreign action trends – Indonesia, China – but Parabellum goes one step further to prove itself. If you can’t beat ‘em into a juicy pulp, why not join ‘em? International megastars Mark Dacascos (Brotherhood Of The Wolf), Yayan Ruhian (The Raid), Tiger Hu Chen (Man Of Thai Chi) and Cecep Arif Rahman (The Raid 2) lend their competitive fire and fluid martial arts choreography to Wick’s kill-a-minute world.
Stateside action so frequently relies upon haymaker punches and body-throwing as muscly weightlifter molds wield brute force over agility (hidden by dizzying camera “tricks”). Reeves, being a trained kung fu student (Jiu Jitsu, Wushu, Boxing and Krav Maga), can keep pace with the quicker, more agile styles of Indonesia’s Pencak Silat for example. Parabellum’s adversarial combat strikes with bone-crushing force, but remains symphonically elegant like a ballet with axe fights captured through steady cinematography. No jumpy cut-aways, only months – YEARS – of sweat-and-grit soaked training put to use.
Seriously; massive shout out to cinematographer Dan Laustsen. Action sequences are rarely allowed to breath through clear-as-day long takes where it’s all on actors. Pure confidence surges through every swooping takedown follow, or whip-snap to pulled triggers, or expanded frame where multiple baddies become another John Wick statistic.
Speaking to the evolution of John Wick’s skillset, Parabellum continues to stack the number of “Fus” depicted on screen. It all started with “Gun Fu,” which still plants headshots in blistering fashion like Wick’s using an auto-aim FPS controller modification. You’ve got “Knife Fu,” which results in hand-to-hand carving slices or thrown daggers that decorate attackers like pin cushions. “Car Fu” was popular in the previous two films, peeling out into victims like a kick, and now you can add “Horse Fu,” “Dog Fu,” “Book Fu,” and amplified usage of stealthy Asian-bred fighting styles that downplay Wick’s firearm reliance. Shockingly, against all odds, Parabellum keeps the John Wick franchise fresh as still-bleeding corpses. Energy and attitude are sustained through pummel after beatdown after fatality.
Brutality stays signature to John Wick, as “Baba Yaga’s” aggressors don’t just die – they die painfully. Within minutes of Parabellum’s beginning, Wick clobbers the snot out of a particularly antsy colleague who perishes by a bent-over-novel neck snap in the middle of New York City’s Public Library. Within the next fight, we’re treated to gruesome eye trauma, head puncture aeration, and a finishing-move axe toss.
Combatants exert physical exhaustion on screen, but continue trading blows until one – not named John Wick – collapses in a heap of lifeless mess. Stahelski’s vision is a bit sadistic until you remember everyone who’s challenging John Wick seals their own fate, softening the savagery as Triad Henchman #7 watches a blade stab through his cornea. Heads are eviscerated by scattershot armor piercing rounds, limbs are snapped, throats are opened – as Parabellum translates, “Prepare for war.”
Equally consistent are character actors playing suit-and-brandy gangsters upholding mercenary code. Ian McShane once again shows up as the rule-abiding Continental manager steeped in murderous sophistication, while Laurence Fishburne spans the opposite spectrum as pidgeon underworld denizen Bowery King. New to the fold are Asia Kate Dillon’s High Table Grim Reaper who’d release a guillotine blade while smiling, Anjelica Huston as a Belarusian ballet instructor who also trains orphans into killing machines, and Halle Berry as Sofia, Wick’s professional equal who charges into battle flanked by two trained tactical puppers.
Of all, the latter sticks out during one damn-near-perfect lair escape (heavily) featuring Sofia’s helpers that may have ruined action films without sidekick pooch assassins for me. Only bested by Mark Dacascos’ sushi chef samurai Zero who beams psychotic enjoyment when tangled in violent tradeoffs with John Wick (a self-proclaimed superfan vying to slay his favorite target).
John Wick’s always fought his way through eye-candy locales, and Parabellum continues overplaying lavishness like every Continental or hideaway was designed by a Bond villain with limitless spending budget. Winston’s secret all-glass office (walls, floors, support beams, etc.), Sofia’s Casablanca Continental inspired by surly sultans demanding delicacies abound, even New York City’s theater district glow trades sidewalk dirtiness and overpopulation for neon hues from a Blade Runner color scheme. Production design amps color saturation while marrying classical European refinement with contemporary chicness à la ballet dancers fluttering about to rock-opera remixes. The action is as visually enthralling as impact is destructive.
Surrender to the world of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and enlightenment will present itself like a slug to your skull. Accept that John Wick is virtually invincible and never misses his shot. Trace betrayals and owed token debts while characters weave in-and-out of John’s world as cameo bits required to fill time between showcase battle sequences. Keanu Reeves has worked tirelessly to cement John Wick as modern Hollywood’s most prolific action hero, and we should appreciate every wound on his character’s body. It’s respect earned through lasting scars, excitement from exquisite aggression, and dominance granted through inflicted physical harm that no human should endure. May John Wick be an ass-whoopin’ fixture for years to come, always surprising us with a new brand of “Fu” added to the boogeyman’s instakill arsenal.