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  • Writer's pictureMartin Vaux

Film Review: John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

Updated: Sep 23, 2019


In the third instalment of what has evidently become a global juggernaut of an action franchise, Keanu Reeves returns as the titular John Wick, balletic assassin and dog’s best friend.


I regularly speak to people who have not yet seen a John Wick movie, and when I mention the films to them they react by acknowledging that they have either never heard of them at all or, more likely, they pull a bit of a face.


“Looks a bit trashy,” that face seems to say. “And a bit stupid.”


In response to such accusations, I have to make a face of my own – one that replies, “Absolutely, on one level. But on another, not at all!”


What I mean by this is that undoubtedly the movies are very, very, very silly. They exist in a baroque pocket universe; it’s all noir Gothicism and lambent neon – a kind of Karl Lagerfeld fever dream where glass doesn’t cut people and every third person is a highly trained killer and member of a secret society, each with its own custom jewellery, book of brand compliant tattoo options, and uniform with strict dress code.


It’s a world that is meant to exist in parallel to our own, and the first film even initially presented itself as in some sense ‘real’ – meet John the sad sack, in his pyjamas, with his puppy and his muscle car. He's just like you.


Kinda.


That never quite convincing setup got thrown out of the window fairly quickly, along with the corpses of a good half-dozen Russian goons who had all been punched and/or stabbed and/or shot in the head by the aforementioned John.


Once John puts his suit on, we learned, it’s business time. And John's business, to be clear, is doing murders.


I suppose what I am saying is, if you are yet to have seen John Wick (or ‘John Wick Chapter 1’ as it is now known) then I would really recommend it. You can see the third without having seen the other two, but why deny yourself? Don't even watch the trailer - it's better that way. All you need to know is that it is a revenge movie, and it starts with an emotional gut punch that justifies the build to a tremendously satisfying crescendo that is part The Matrix, part Oldboy, and all fun and games.

When that first film came out though, it was only a minor box office hit. Where it really earned its place was in the home video market, where word of mouth and internet advocacy saw the film blossom and grow in popularity and reputation.


In a pleasing turn of events, John Wick Chapter 2 then went on to double the box office gross of the first movie, and that film once again thrived on DVD and streaming services. And now, almost like clockwork, the same thing has happened with John Wick Chapter 3, which was released on the big screen in May and into the home market this month, where it is already breaking records.


Undoubtedly, part of what people love about these films is the aesthetic. The first movie’s score was hinged on a banging Marilyn Manson riff, and the costumes from Luca Mosca and production design by Dan Leigh and Kevin Kavanaugh across the trilogy have been absolutely impeccable.


Without the work of these individuals and their teams, the whole John Wick franchise would not work – it is as much about vibe as anything else.


Another major factor in the success of the films is Chad Stahleski, franchise director and a man who knows his action movie onions; he was a stuntman and fight choreographer for many years, and both doubled for Keanu Reeves in The Matrix Trilogy and crafted many of the action sequences for those films alongside the legendary Yuen Woo-ping.

Stahleski is the person responsible for getting Reeves on board for these movies, and Reeves’ own contributions cannot be undersold. He came up with the name, does most of his own stunts, and works like a maniac to make almost impossible things happen in-camera.


But it is Stahleski who knows what is and is not possible in action movies. He is a student and master of the genre, nods regularly to silent film, and in his Wick-verse he pushes things to the very limits while at the same time instilling a tone and philosophy that enable every sequence to sing.


What I mean by this is evident in ways wide and ranging, but just one example of Stahleski’s bold vision is his approach to showing the audience everything, and being quite slow about it.


Unlike with the fashionable fight choreography of recent years, with edits falling on impacts to hide strikes and Evil Dead/Bourne franchise ‘shaky cam’ working to sell sequences as realistic, Stahleski takes his approach from Hong Kong action movies of the 1970s; you see each movement as in a dance, with edits only happening out of absolute necessity or when a perspective shift would offer a better view.


This sense of calm, methodical film-making enables the action sequences in the John Wick films to become terrifically tense. They are brutal – an eye stab in this one is grim, and the number of people shot in the head in these movies is so high as to become inconsequential – but they are also gleefully imaginative.


In this film alone, for example, we have horses being used to kick baddies in the face, then a chase on horseback. There’s a quiet scrap in a library. There are throwing knife fights. Motorcycle and car chases, sword fights (including one on motorcycles), fist fights and, of course, loads and loads of pitched gun battles – each with armaments of varying sizes, of course, to stop things getting boring.


Ultimately, there is so much expertise behind the camera here that the action ends up being as exclusive and luxuriant as the haute couture that everyone is wearing, with the net result being that each movie is a sensuous, pacey, visual feast.

That’s not to say there aren’t problems. One of them resides in the writing, which is ultimately overseen by Derek Kolstad. Kolstad is the ‘visionary’ behind the arcane inner-workings of the John Wick universe - the man who knows the deal with all the secret societies, understands the wheels within wheels, and who comes up with the silly nomenclature attached to everyone and everything we are supposed to care about.


Clearly, a fair portion of what Kolstad has dreamt up appeals to people – but the most eye-rolling aspects of these films are always the story points. Some character with a silly name has to be found to say something portentous. Sure, sure. Whatever. Just crack on with the people talking already so we can get back to the death dancing please.


Oh look – this scrap is going to happen in Morocco! Yay!


Needless to say, the storylines are wafer thin, and they pinch and pilfer from films like The Matrix, Wanted, folk tales and fables. Spaghetti Westerns and classic Samurai movies are also key touchpoints. Rather than just being derivative however, their postmodernity is a strength, with, for example, Laurence Fishburne reuniting with Keanu Reeves from John Wick Chapter 2 onwards – a development that is explicitly pleasing in spite of Morpheus’ ever expanding waistline.


Indeed, to have lines lifted straight from the Wachowski’s sci-fi opus and plopped into these films does feel exciting, even if it maybe shouldn’t. It is silly, of course, but it is also silly to have Ian McShane playing someone who is meant to be in any way cool. He is more ham than man these days, and can clearly no longer bend at the knees. But who cares? You want some mid-grade British gravitas? He'll do anything for a few quid. Fill your boots!

McShane aside, the wider ensemble casts of these films are always good. From John Leguiziamo, Willem Defoe and Alfie Allen in the first one to Ruby Rose, Common and Peter Serafinowicz in the second, it's all a bit of a who's who.


The third builds on this theme with scenery-chewing appearances by Angelica Houston, Jerome Flynn and Halle Berry, with the former two not quite being able to locate their accents and the latter presented to us as a kind of lady-John Wick (Joanna Wick?) with her own dogs and her own fighty-fighty-pow-pow skills and needless tragic backstory.


The real powerhouse at the core of the movies though is, of course, Reeves, who is, in many senses, the great postmodern movie star. He looks as if he comes from everywhere, seems as if he can do everything, and the range of films he has made across his career is absolutely astonishing when you think about it.


We all remember Bill and Ted, and all remember Speed, and all remember Point Break, and all remember The Matrix. But don’t forget Dangerous Liaisons, My Own Private Idaho, A Scanner Darkly, Thumbsucker and The Neon Demon. The list goes on, and emphasises that Reeves really puts himself out there. The limits of what he can do only seems to move outwards, and while he may not be Daniel Day Lewis he evidently has the skills to pay the bills.


In these films, and in Parabellum in particular, Reeves pushes himself yet further – much as the film pushes its audience.


How many headshots are too many headshots, it asks?


How many times can you see men being bitten in the crotch by dogs before it becomes too many?


How about how many weapons a person can find and make on the fly? Is there an upper limit?


Would you like, for example, an extended battle with a leather belt?


How about one where the baddies will only die if shot in the neck?


And how do you feel about us bringing in the fight team from The Raid and The Raid 2 for some hybrid vigour?

I mean, I would have thought that the whole franchise would have collapsed under its own weight by now. It has done so much, pushed so many boundaries, been so rich and so stupid and so beautiful and so creative that surely it must be running out of gears?


Not yet, says John Wick Chapter 3. We have only just started throwing our hero from the tops of skyscrapers and letting him survive. We have loads of other stuff to do to him yet – and to have him do to other people.


Seriously, it says. Just sit back and let us show you.


How can you respond to an offer like that?


I mean, they haven’t screwed it up yet.


How about with a phrase like, and when is John Wick Chapter 4 coming out?


Not asking for any particular reason.


Just… you know. Curious.


Inquiring for a friend, etc, etc…

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