John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a somewhat enjoyable action-thriller but it’s not as rewarding as most reviewers have made it out to be. After reading what all the critics had to say, I was assuming that this, the third in the John Wick film franchise would be the best of the three (which would have been a noteworthy achievement since the third film in a trilogy has never been superior to the original). After having high-hopes for this one, I came out of the cinema satisfied to a point; this movie isn’t exactly a disappointment but it’s not the flawless sequel that fans have been led to believe.
Just to recap: John Wick: Chapter 2 was a trashy, amateur-looking shambles but the first film in the John Wick franchise, despite being overrated, had an interesting premise and was executed well. If you recall, the first film in the series began with a downbeat and emotional topic; the death of a loved one, and John Wick: Chapter 1 therefore, was grounded with purpose and feeling. The second however was an over-the-top yet dull pile of shite (I don’t mean “over-the-top” in an entertaining way but rather in a wannabe-flash but amateurishly cartoonish way). The latest installment doesn’t take the film back to the slightly-believable narrative of the first film but it at least abandons the marrying of B-movie aesthetics, sloppy fights, with mediocre actors as Chapter 2 saw fit to do. With the inclusion of Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Asia Kate Dillon, and Saïd Taghmaoui, there’s a decent calibre of actors here, and despite the group’s acting chops not really being tested, they along with Keanu Reeves give Chapter 3 a sense of substance, something the first sequel lacked in abundance.
In Parabellum, Keanu Reeves returns as John Wick, a hitman who wants to retire but who has disobeyed the rules of the underworld. With a bounty on his head, he now faces death at every turn with the world’s greatest assassins on his tail. This straight-forward plot could have been the film’s greatest strength, with the entire film being a back-to-back kill-fest. Trying to make it out of Manhattan, trying to somehow undo his “excommunicado” status, the whole thing should have been non-stop action. In some ways this film is “all action” but there’s still pacing issues (talking for a set amount of time followed by a predictable fight that lasts a set amount of time and repeat). The fight scenes also have no basis in real life (in terms of injury) so there’s no threat or peril for the central character. And the John Wick “world building” has now turned so theatrically international that it’s like watching a Neo-Noir Mission Impossible. While I’m criticising the film; who thought of having an all-important book safe on a shelf in a library open to the public? You’re telling me that nobody has ever checked out that book and inadvertently come across some gold coins and what looks like a broach and hocked them? And I distinctly remember that when Winston looked at his watch in Chapter 2, it was 4 o’clock, and he then told Wick that he had “one hour” before he would be “excommunicado”. In Chapter 3, this has been extended to “6 pm EST” for some reason. Not a big deal I know, but it shows how much the writers care about realism and indeed the overall storyline.
This film is once again directed by Chad Stahelski who was a stunt double for Keanu Reeves’ character Neo in The Matrix. With some of the fight scenes in John Wick: Chapter 2 looking like something in an ’80s B-movie, thankfully in this film the choreography and stunts have improved (which you would expect given the director’s previous profession but which wasn’t always obvious in the second film). If you look closely, there are still a few scenes where the villains wait around to get into the fight but it’s much less noticeable than the last debacle.
Given that John Wicks 1 to 3 are directed by a stuntman, the main reason to watch these films is apparently the fights but to me without a meaty storyline, violence becomes tedious. I’ve read critics describing the fight scenes in the John Wick franchise as “inventive” and “intense” but I never found those descriptions to be accurate; “intense” would be the original Oldboy and “inventive” would be Kung-Fu Hustle, “Inventive and intense” would be The Raid. The great Yayan Ruhianand may be in this film but this is nowhere near a Gareth Evans-flick. For me, there’s always been something clunky about fights in American cinema; they’re either unrealistic CGI and wire-work or inelegant brawn. Thankfully, the fights in John Wick: Chapter 3 don’t look bungled or boring like those in Chapter 2 but there’s only so many times that a stab wound can look painful and believable. After the first knife in his shoulder, there’s no more seeking medical assistance, John Wick suddenly becomes impervious to knives, bullets, cars, glass shards, heights and concrete floors. They may have downplayed the bulletproof suit, but if you keep seeing a car running into someone’s legs followed by them walking away or someone running away and ducking from automatic gun fire and surviving; the blood, violence, and injuries, no matter how well shot and created, become less and less plausible and therefore less and less interesting. If someone is invincible, then what’s the point in rooting for them?
All that being said, there are some great aspects to the film. The glass-case-breaking and knife-throwing scene was humourous and the conclusion to that scene with the knife blade piercing the eye was impressively violent. The scene with John Wick riding a horse reminded me of the fantastic True Lies which is good company for an action movie to be in. In terms of cast, I cannot stress how good it is to not have to sit through a film where the villain is a 30-something twat with a Vidal Sassoon voucher and a gun (Santino… ahem… D’Antonio). It was also great that I didn’t have to watch another Ruby Rose “performance” which is a boon as an audience member of any film. Aside from the excellent Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, and Asia Kate Dillon, Mark Dacascos is particularly great as Wick’s nemesis and he gives some comic relief to the proceedings memorably asking John if their fight was “pretty good” as a blade sticks out of his chest. The score has also slightly improved; thankfully there’s no corny Marilyn Manson songs here, although by now I have come to terms with the fact that corny dad-Rock is part and parcel of this action franchise.
Since their inception, critics have always been snobbish about action movies, reluctantly giving them praise whilst somehow managing to bash the genre itself. This has been true for the last 40-odd years but now all of a sudden, when action films have become unrealistic and formulaic, they now rush to shower average films with all the undeserved praise possible. These same people who pooh-poohed Die Hard 3 but overrated the inferior Die Hard 4 are now in full “John Wick Is The Greatest Action Film” mode, oblivious to the fact that heavy-handed fight scenes, CGI gunshots and stab wounds does not an action classic make.
More generally, we have a tendency to overrate most movies these days, since half of cinema is confined to comic-book adaptations, and the other half is chock-full of reboots and remakes, anything that on the surface seems original, we claim is the best thing since sliced necks. If you take a step back and compare this film with everything that has come before; everything in the pantheon of classic action cinema, John Wick: Chapter 3 is not the greatest action film and it’s not the greatest action-thriller. It’s enjoyable enough not to be bored, and it’s a return to form after the abysmal second film but that’s not a great achievement.
I suppose that while we’re all in a Marvel and DC-malaise, films like this feel real by comparison; there’s no capes, no impervious shields, no magic hammers, and no spaceships, just good old-fashioned blood, guns, samurai swords, knives, cars, bikes, and horses. But a film has to have more than violent fight scenes. I despise action nerds who talk about “body count” but who ignore the shortcomings of the plot, pace, and performance of a film. The fact that we the audience were told being “excommunicado” was a death sentence for Keanu Reeves’ character, then midway through the film we were told that the Continental being “deconsecrated” was detrimental to Ian McShane’s character, by the end almost everything is conveniently undone. And this is only to set up a potential John Wick: Chapter 4 – The High Table which makes me feel like I’ve been suckered into paying for tickets without any actual resolution to the plot set out in the previous movies. In that respect, John Wick has begun to feel like a cash-cow that no longer cares about its audience. I acknowledge that this is the business model of all of Hollywood but if the writer and director are clever enough, a sequel can feel like a journey rather than a profit-making scheme. Unfortunately the only journey I went on was to the cinema.
Good Things Come In Threes?
FWIW, I thought that John Wick 2 was a homage to 80s HK Heroic bloodshed films. There was nothing here I’d not seen done as well if not better in the Heros shed no tears / Bullet in the Head / Killer films. Still good to see the return of Marc Dacascos, who is a great martial artist and a sorely underused actor.