John Wick, angel of death, deliverer of uncountable headshots, the man in the bulletproof black suit. Even in his own comic book reality — the bizarre underworld of sharp-dressed assassins and henchmen introduced in 2014’s John Wick, he is a mythic figure. No matter what one might think of Keanu Reeves’ merits as an actor, the role has always seemed as tailor-made for him as one of Wick’s stylish suits. Wick is a archetype, an unstoppable avenger in a world of tortuous rules. He once killed three men with a pencil, and in the opening minutes of the John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, he unloads on a towering assailant (Boban Marjanović) with a library book. Wick being Wick, he makes sure to put it back on the shelf when he’s done.
Parabellum picks up immediately where John Wick: Chapter 2 left off with Wick on run after being declared excommunicado from his shadowy world of assassins because he killed a member of the High Table in the safe haven that is the Continental Hotel. As Wick scrambles to stay alive with a $14 million bounty on his head and every assassin coming to kill him, the High Table sends The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to settle matters with the Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who assisted Wick, thus breaking the rules of the High Table. Also, along the way, John Wick kills tons of people in flashy ways.
Keanu Reeves in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
If you were to ask someone what the greatest action movie ever made was, and they said “the first thirty minutes of John Wick: Chapter 3,” they’d have a good point. The extended opening of Chad Stahelski’s sequel is breathtaking, gorgeous, intimidating cinema, in which the title assassin is racing against the clock from every other assassin in New York City — which, at times, looks a lot like everyone in New York City — trying to take his life. But “John Wick kills tons of people in flashy ways,” is the driving principle of the movie, and along this simple line, John Wick: Chapter 3 is an absolute triumph. If the Academy was smart and had a category for Best Stunts, no one else would even bother submitting because Parabellum would be such an obvious choice. What Stahelski and his cinematographer Dan Laustsen do here is nothing short of jaw-dropping from a knife fight to end all knife fights to a mind-blowing motorcycle chase to incredible dogs working for Halle Berry, who plays an old colleague of Wick. If you were to cut out the rest of the movie and just had the action scenes, you’d have really fun, exhilarating stuff to watch.
But John Wick: Chapter 3 aims to be a narrative feature. There’s ostensibly a story and characters, and they don’t really get the attention they deserve to make this a worthwhile journey. The fundamental failings of Parabellum is how it fails to really connect its action to its story. The action is perfunctory to the point where you may as well be playing a video game. The brief scenes between the action sequences are practically “cut scenes” to tie the action together, but those don’t really serve much of a purpose. John Wick’s story in Parabellum is so slapped together that it lacks any weight. To be honest, I don’t even know what his arc is in this movie. I guess you can’t really change John Wick because he needs to keep killing people, but there’s a way to upend his world and make you feel like you’ve been on a journey.
Keanu Reeves & Halle Berry in John Wick: Chapter 3
Parabellum, instead, just piles on the action, essentially force feeding you candy, which is delicious, but in no way nutritious or filling. And some people won’t mind that because they didn’t primarily come to a John Wick movie for storytelling or character work. But it’s without those necessary aspects, that the action then becomes diminished. The first act of Parabellum is undeniably the best part of the movie because is has the propulsive drive of Wick on the run. He has character motivation. But then the movie doesn’t really know what to do with him, so his actions then lose their weight. At one point in the movie, John Wick has a long, extraordinarily choreographed, two-on-one fight scene, and I began to get kind of bored because not only was it arriving about twenty minutes into a set piece, but because the stakes no longer mattered. It was action for the sake of action, and nothing seemed to really affect the film’s protagonist.
But let’s be clear: we are lucky to have the John Wick films. These are masterpieces of action choreography, filmed with an eye for light and color unlike most other American films. The first forty-sixty minutes display that, and during that time I began to wonder if this might be the best John Wick film yet. Except as Parabellum progresses its hollowness pervades the plot and characters, yet the action, for the most part, is riveting and exhilarating. Keanu Reeves has aged into an actor of quiet gravitas and I want to care about him as John Wick, but Chapter 3 seems at a loss for what he wants and how his actions affect his character. At the end of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, it feels like we’ve seen a lot of set pieces but very little change. There will be a few things that are different in the inevitable fourth installment, but right now the John Wick franchise feels a little stuck. It may be stuck in a place that’s able to deliver awe-inspiring action, but it’s also a place where the only thing that will change are the style of the executions, not the executioner.