Director: Chad Stahleski
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Asia Kate Dillon, Ian McShane
Last time we saw John Wick (Keanu Reeves) things weren’t looking good for the ruthlessly efficient assassin. Having broken the sacred contract of sanctuary at The Continental Hotel in New York, Wick was deemed ‘excommunicado’ by its manager Winston (Ian McShane) who, out of fondness, gave him an hour’s head start. John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum picks up right where that left off.
Is it possible to have too much of a good thing? Parabellum certainly makes a case for it. Out of the gate this is pretty much what you might expect. Only this time, Wick – still wounded from his recent struggles – is worn out. He staggers through the city, cowering from every other face that turns to watch him. In the world of John Wick, half the population are hired guns. And the price on his head is very, very tempting.
The staggering gait of Wick is matched, unfortunately, in the lumbering pace of this third instalment, which struggles to offer much that is demonstrably new. Granted, many of those elements were working just fine in the excellent second film, but Parabellum is the longest chapter yet, and you’ll be forgiven for wondering just how much more can really be eked out of this idea.
Director Chad Stahleski has nailed down a slick style for these movies. Framed in neon and impractical amounts of glass, the look of Parabellum is as shimmering and voguishly beautiful as ever. Reeves cuts through sheet rain; an intimidating presence even when nursing deep knife wounds or GSWs. And, as before, the action is smartly choreographed and edited with a less-is-more approach that owes a debt to the action cinema of Hong Kong.
Said scenes are eerily familiar this time around. On occasion, Stahleski mixes it up to great effect; a brawl in a showroom of knives is, at the very least, a welcome change of pace from the constant blast of bullets. Elsewhere, Parabellum offers up great action in the streets, with Wick escaping his pursuers first on horseback and later by motorcycle. In both instances the action trailing him has a breathlessness that stands toe to toe with the best of the first two flicks. And Stahleski charms with his choice of locations. We may have seen John fight before, but a public library and an inner city stable offer a welcome element of aesthetic diversity to this alternate version of NYC.
But elsewhere creeps a sense of staleness. Halle Berry takes second billing, but her role in the film as Wick’s former acquaintance Sofia amounts to little (though she at least avoids the fate that has befallen all previous women in this series). She fights with the aid of dogs (John’s favourite), but still that gimmick isn’t enough to render a Casablanca brawl any more interesting. In the final act of the film, Wick’s handguns are traded in for shotguns. Go big or go home, right? But its still the same old moves. The extended fight sequences that cap everything are stacked dauntingly on top of one another. They are impressively staged and choreographed, absolutely. But by this time aggression fatigue has set in and their impact is dulled.
What made Chapter Two shine so brightly was its ambitious and delightful world building. Additions like Laurence Fishburne’s king of the homeless and the Continental Switchboard charmed, and fed into the sense of this all taking place in a thought-through universe. Parabellum doesn’t quite manifest the same level of surprise, focusing much of its time on the shadowy High Table; an international organisation that seemingly governs all assassins, given voice here in the main by Asia Kate Dillon’s bureaucratic Adjudicator. Stern as she comes across, there’s something a little unintentionally campy about her performance (though that’s not half as distracting as the tattoo written around her neck: what does that say? please help me I’m dying).
Speaking of campy, Fishburne’s Bowery King is Parabellum‘s brightest charm. It’s just too bad that he’s marginalised. In fact, keeping on this train of thought, its the peripheral characters that help keep this marathon flick alive. It’s a particular pleasure to see Lance Reddick’s concierge given a little more to do this time around.
When the effect of the violence feels dulled, however, you start wondering about its purpose. Parabellum finds Wick having to get down and dirty more often, scrapping with his attackers. These encounters tend to make the film feel more brutal and gratuitous. Of course, John Wick has always been about its violence, but it escaped feeling problematic before out of its heightened sense of style. These films have turned gun play and hand to hand combat into art. Parabellum feels less immune to criticism. Perhaps the pressure to one-up your previous instalments has inadvertently led to this grittier, more unpleasant streak in John’s kills.
And so, John Wick Chapter 3 feels like a contradiction. Impressive in its staging, but tiring. Innovation appears to have flagged this time around and the net result is a film that tries to dazzle as it drains. More discouraging is the refusal to quit while ahead. People like trilogies. There’s a neatness to them; each individual chapter a satisfying act in a whole (ideally). Stahleski and his team seem to have no intention of stopping now. Baba Yaga will return… But here’s hoping that next time he changes the rules.