For audiences, the blood-soaked tale of melancholic assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has been told over the last five years. For the character, his adventures have been an on-going nightmare for only a few weeks. In that time, he’s suffered a seemingly endless run of violence, one which would make a lesser individual crack under the strain. But cracking would mean less fun for viewers and the third chapter in the John Wick series, subtitled Parabellum, certainly brings the fun amid the pathos the audience has come to expect. Back to the razor-sharp narrative focus of the original 2014 film and using the world-building established in the 2017 sequel, Chapter Two, John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum, delivers all the brutal, bone-crunching, Gun Fu audiences desire as the story continues to follow the beleaguered Mr. Wick on his journey through Hell to find redemption.
At the end of Chapter Two, John Wick killed Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) on the grounds of the Continental. In doing so, Wick not only executed a newly minted member of the mysterious High Table, a group of members which oversee all transactions committed by people like Wick, but broke a cardinal rule which protects all: no business shall be conducted on Continental grounds. The punishment for such action is a change in status to Excommunicado, meaning Wick is cut off from all services previously available, is allowed no support, and is forfeiting his life. In the past, the New York Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) has dealt with rule-breakers swiftly, but this time he granted Wick a 1-hour head start. Just as Wick’s choices bring with them consequences, so do the Manager’s, and those of all others who have helped Wick survive, for the High Table wants satisfaction and they send an Adjudicator (Asia Katie Dillon) to ensure they receive it.
Comparing one film in a series to another is hard to avoid, especially when they’re as directly connected as each respective Chapter in the John Wick series. There was a sleekness present in the original Wick, which was largely absent in Chapter Two. Much of this is due to the world-building required in the second feature in order for the shift from straight revenge actioner to high velocity thriller. In Parabellum, all the world-building from original and sole screenwriter Derek Kolstad undeniably pays off. Though Parabellum lists three additional screenwriters – Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams – the film delivers a sleek continuation of Wick’s constant quest for peace that never feels far-fetched or insane, even as the world around him grows ever larger and the danger creeps from every corner. Much of this is because of Kolstad’s work within Chapter Two, suggesting once more that middle films tend to get the short-end due to the connective tissue they must create. One aspect of that work inspires frequent jokes: the fact that there appears to be an assassin around every corner, hiding in plain sight in every possible place you can imagination. Yet, within the rules explored in Chapter Two, this is not only plausible but serves as a means to insert a constant threat , which translates to a film which never seems to stop, even when a parlay appears in place. Truly, anything is possible in the Wick universe and it comes bathed in blood.
Bringing the pain is a series of familiar faces and several new ones. Reeves continues to impress with his martial arts and weaponry skills, engaging in as many stunts as possible. What will truly resonate is the way his physicality communicates what few bits of dialogue he has does not. The audience sees Wick as the Baba Yaga, the boogeyman, but he’s still a man, one who’s been pushed to his limits for weeks, and it begins to show in the choices he makes. Parabellum is a film about consequences and Wick must not only contend with the fall-out of his own choices, but those made around him and because of him. Reeves presents a man split in half, his grief still fresh and violence swirling around him; a man having to choose between internal peace or external violence. Audiences will delight in seeing McShane do more than be devilishly charming and Continental concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) make it clear why he’s the gatekeeper. Of the returning cast, Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King gets the least to do, yet his presence is not insignificant (those who enjoy watching any sort of Matrix reunion will be delighted). It’s not that new faces are given more narrative real estate, so much as their contributions offer catalysts to propel Wick forward.
Adding to the mayhem this time around are several faces you’re aware of and a few you may not be. Of course, the wonderful thing about the John Wick films is not only the caliber of actors which appear, but how none of them ever take their performances to extremes. Oscar winner Anjelica Huston is The Director and she brings the gravitas required for a role which offers new insight into the Baga Yaga himself. Conversely, Oscar winner Halle Berry’s approach to Sofia is less about gravitas and more of righteous indignation. Her character is a mirror for Wick and her performance is received as a compelling antithesis to Reeves’s own. As explored within Parabellum, their narrative entanglement is treated as a reluctant necessity, making Wick’s internal struggle for who he is, the same struggle introduced in the first film, concrete and tangible. At the center of the conflict is Dillion’s (Billions/Orange is the New Black) Adjudicator, emotionless, exacting, and the first physical representation of the High Table. Where the opponents Wick’s fought in the past were emotion-filled, they present a character merely on a business trip. This makes the character, merely in presentation, perhaps the most dangerous opponent Wick’s faced yet. For all the new characters, audiences will delight most in Mark Dacascos’s (Brotherhood of the Wolf) Zero, an assassin who’s not only tasked by The Adjudicator to seek justice for the High Table, but who is also an enormous fan of Wick himself. Honestly, for a series which uses humor in small, yet effective doses, Dacascos is the perfect applicator to relieve some of Parabellum’s more tense moments.
The story and performances are rarely the things audiences come to the Wick series for. They want mayhem and they want it in excess. Unlike Chapter Two which seemed to create more and more unnecessarily complicated stunt sequences, Parabellum features stunt work in line with the stakes and circumstances. Impressively, rather than the frenzy witnessed toward the end of Chapter Two, enemies appear in waves and the environment dictates the fight, making each encounter feel improvised and fresh. Martial arts fans will delight in seeing Tiger Chen (Triple Threat/The Matrix), Yayan Ruhian (The Raid), and Cecep Arif Rahman (The Raid: Berundal) in small roles. Where these three go, brutality tends to follow, which makes them perfect additions to the Wick series. In fact, the altercation between Ruhian, Rahman, and Reeves almost seems like a throwback to the a smaller moment in John Wick featuring Kevin Nash’s Francis which serves to highlight how idolized and respected Wick remains within the world of the High Table. There is one constant and frustrating aspect throughout Parabellum which diminishes an otherwise engaging dramatic action film: the direction during the stunts. Considering director Chad Stahelski, a former stuntman himself, returns to direct the third film in the series, it’s strange to see a drop in quality turning these key cinematic moments. Rather than keeping the camera in line with the action, the camera appears to lag behind the actors rather than move with them at several points. The John Wick series captured audiences’ attentions with the impeccable stuntwork, of which there are several fantastic moments designed and choreographed beautifully, but when the actors move in-and-out of frame as the camera seeks to stay with them, the action appears unintentionally disorganized, resulting in a more discombobulated sensation from the otherwise painstakingly structured direction.
John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum is a fantastic step-up from the previous outing. With the groundwork laid in Chapter Two, Parabellum not only expands the universe, but manages to grow relationships in surprising ways. Even with the odd camerawork during some stunts, there’s no denying the way the John Wick series continues to capture our imaginations. Bonds are forged and broken, personal ethics are challenged, and at the center of it all is John Wick, a man of two worlds who only wants to be left alone. Honestly, by the end of Parabellum, as long as Kolstad has ideas and Stahelski and Reeves are game, there is truly no telling how far John Wick will go to achieve peace, but we will undoubtedly follow to find out.
In theaters nationwide May 17th, 2019. For ticket information, head to the John Wick website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.