The character of John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is basically the biggest celebrity in his own universe. His reputation and backstory is something of legend. We don’t know exactly what it entails, but we know he was the best, and by evidence of the three films in this series so far—he still is.
John Wick was better than anyone thought it would be, bringing gorgeous visuals and practical action, taking large inspiration from classic Hong Kong action cinema and spaghetti westerns. Simply, it’s a classic revenge tale about a guy who wants revenge on the man who killed his dog. John Wick: Chapter 2 expanded on the lore set up in the first, and proved this was a franchise that people wanted, making nearly double worldwide what the first did ($AUD128.85 to $AUD247.69 million).
At the conclusion of Chapter 2, our titular hero committed the cardinal sin of killing on Continental grounds, and is declared ‘excommunicado’ by The High Table—the global governing body of assassin activity. In non-Wick superfan speak, if you kill inside the assassin hotel chain, you’re banned. Parabellum is helmed once again by Chad Stahelski and picks up immediately after its predecessor’s conclusion, with Wick’s hour-long head start about to expire and a $14 million bounty to be placed on his head. He’ll have to fight his way out of New York City’s expansive assassin underworld—every one of whom wants him. Any mere mortal would find this impossible, but John Wick is not your regular assassin. As the Continental’s manager Winston (Ian McShane), so brilliantly puts it, “I’d say the odds are about even.”
What makes this universe so enticing is that it’s so far divulged from our own universe. Its surrealism and mythos is part of its crazy appeal, setting it apart from the myriad of action films released every year. If the first forerunners of the series were loaded with jaw-dropping action, it’s even bigger and crazier in Parabellum—the Latin phrase for ‘prepare for war’.
After a brutal fight at the New York Public Library, Wick retrieves a marker and a crucifix. The crucifix leads him to The Director (Anjelica Huston)—a member of The High Table who runs an assassin school disguised as a dance academy. The ‘marker’ was introduced in the second film as a device where one who is given a marker must complete a task of the giver’s determination. The Director leads Wick to Casablanca where he meets a Sofia (Halle Berry), another figure from Wick’s past.
One element about this instalment which isn’t as strong in comparison to the previous two is its story, which is less concise than its predecessors. Chapter 1 was a simple revenge tale; in Chapter 2, Wick was given a mission via the marker, and he had to complete it. In this instalment, series screenwriter Derek Kolstad, who is joined by new writers Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams, continue to deepen the Wick mythos, even if this ‘on-the-run’ tale is more labyrinthine than it arguably needs to be. Wick has a bounty on his head and must find a person, who will then lead him to another person, who will lead him to another person. It’s not as tight as the first two, but this is an action franchise, and my word does that action deliver.
There’s a fight with books at a library, which leads to a knife fight in an antiques store full of them, and then he gets a horse to take down fellow assassins before he rides it through New York City. And that’s just in the first act. What director Chad Stahelski does so well once again is stage creative, exhilarating action in beautiful wide takes. You don’t see close quarters combat action better than this, with the biggest praise having to go to Reeves and the whole stunt team—whose talents are the reasons why we get such lush action. The violence is even more gruesome and more cartoonish than before. There’s even a swordfight on motorcycles! The body count reaches the triple figures so it’s not exactly small. Returning cinematographer Dan Lausten makes night-time New York look electric once again and the series’ signature neon-drenched palettes continue to be stunning.
The big second act set piece takes place in Casablanca with Halle Berry’s Sofia and it’s another immaculately choregraphed shootout with Sofia’s two trained dogs even assisting them. It’s about time the dogs of this franchise got their revenge.
Just like Chapter 2, we’re introduced to a bevy of new characters along with some returning players from the first two films. It’s great to see Lawrence Fishburne return as The Bowery King, who despite only having five minutes of screen time in the second film, was an absolute scene stealer, as he is in Parabellum as well. Ian McShane and Lance Reddick return as Winston and Chiron—The Continental’s manager and concierge respectively—who are fantastic once again, with the latter getting his first bit of real action which was so great to see.
The newcomers include Asia Kate Dillon, who provides a stern presence as The Adjudicator, another representative of The High Table. Halle Berry is a standout and excels in the mid film set piece. Mark Dacascos’s character Zero and his henchmen (two of whom star in the incredible The Raid series) are representative of Wick’s ever-increasing celebrity. They explicitly mention how much they love fighting him and even let him get up at points so they can continue belting him—they give him a run for his money that’s for sure.
This film is so exhilarating and pulse-pounding that by the third act, the final set piece—while impressively shot and choreographed as expected—feels slightly overlong, maybe because it echoes the third act’s mirror sequence in Chapter 2 very closely. One thing this series is great at is deadpan visual comedy, and there’s a great of example of this involving Wick repeatedly smashing into glass cases in this set piece.
With Parabellum, the John Wick series cements itself as a top-tier action franchise in Hollywood today. Unlike what many would expect, this series isn’t ending anytime soon. I’m just hoping it doesn’t get too long in the tooth. If Stahelski continues to anchor this series as director, I’m confident we’ll get more goodness out of this franchise. And Keanu Reeves may be 54, but he’s still doing 98 per cent of the stunts; I’m convinced he’s ageless.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is in cinemas now