John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
“Si vis pacem, para bellum.” The Latin phrase translates roughly as, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” It’s a paradoxical notion, like shouting for quiet, but perfectly in keeping with the frenetic saga that the John Wick storyline has become.
It began with the 2014 film telling the tale of a hitman pulled back into a world he left behind after the theft of his car and murder of his dog. The 2017 sequel built upon that foundation, and this third chapter, Parabellum, picks up seconds after that one left off.
For those who remember the last two films mostly for their remarkable action sequences, they have a lot of world-building that you likely want to brush up on. The most critical element is the fact that Wick committed violence inside the Continental, the secret society gathering place that served as a neutral ground for assassins. Winston (Ian McShane) grants John an hour of grace before the state of excommunicado sets in, where anyone giving him assistance of any kind will themselves be subject to punishment.
What’s been terrific about franchise screenwriter Derek Kolstad’s storyline has been his ability to write himself out of dead ends where it seems like the title character is simply screwed out of success. Joined on writing duties by Shay Hatten, Chris Colllins, and Marc Abrams, the Parabellum script feels more confident in expanding Wick’s world, showcasing how the currents of criminality and the adjoining infrastructure that keep things orderly are international in scope. The notion of honor among thieves is the most captivating element of these narratives, bouncing between the brutality and a Catholic sense of organization, where different strata dictate order lest even those whose job it is to be criminal find themselves living as animals.
Underlying the journey is a sense of exhaustion mixed with tenacity. Keanu Reeves has grown into the character wonderfully, and presents this iteration with a palpable weariness. Not all of his strikes land, nor do all his ideas bear fruit. Nevertheless, there’s a sense of inevitability throughout that unless he bleeds to death, Wick will keep coming, a Terminator with a conscience who simply wanted to find a way out of the game.
Ian McShane is delightful as always as Winston, and Lance Redick as Charon the concierge gets even more to play with. The fact that stars of The Wire and Deadwood get to have so much fun in this franchise pleases me to no end. Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne also returns as the Bowery King, the lord of the underground where street people and pigeons serve as an off-the-grid army. When Wick teams up with a colleague named Sofia (Halle Berry), her twin attack dogs amp up the violence to particularly effective levels. Asia Kate Dillon from Orange Is the New Black plays a talkative but creepily effective bureaucratic Adjudicator. A regal Anjelica Huston appears as a member of the “high table” who owes Wick a favor, and her aloof yet determined air is a welcome addition to this galaxy of stars.
Most fun of all is Mark Dacascos as the main antagonist for Wick. The tall and powerful action star has already been in genre classics like Brotherhood of the Wolf and Drive, and gets some terrific character beats here. He’s a mix of the stereotypically astute samurai master and a star-struck fanboy for Wick, thrilled to have the chance to go up against the best. The mix of zaniness and deadly seriousness is tonally perfect.
The movie also has some terrific action scenes involving personal faves Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian, two Indonesian action masters known best for their roles in the Raid films. They too are giddy to be fighting Wick, and the wide range of battles that are choreographed throughout the film form a kind of greatest hits of fighting styles.
The battles give the film a balletic nature. Each action sequence ramps up the stakes, and each fight has a specific narrative purpose. Rather than simply stop things for a fight to occur, we often learn more from the characters as they swing at each other than when they talk. Yes, the killing gets repetitive, but the filmmakers manage to maintain the visceral, guttural thrill without losing sight of the end game. As the credits roll, we’re given a respite as well as a new direction for the saga to build upon. For as exhausted as Wick is, the story is far from feeling tired. In fact, it feels like it’s just getting its footing.
The first John Wick was a welcome surprise that seemed to come out of nowhere and establish Reeves as new kind of action hero. Parabellum may not hold the same level of freshness as we’ve come to expect from this franchise, but to its credit there’s never a sense of redundancy. At some point, the character will surely collapse from exhaustion, unable to go any further without making the ultimate sacrifice. Until then, the world of Wick remains a most excellent place to explore.