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« Watch at Home: Killing Sacred Deers in Moonlit Hidden Worlds | Main | Stage Door: "Beetlejuice" and "Pretty Woman" »
Tuesday
May212019

Review: John Wick 3: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

By Lynn Lee

“Guns.  Lots of guns.”

That line is only one of several of John Wick 3’s nods to its spiritual predecessor, The Matrix, albeit the most overt one.  With the right audience, it draws appreciative laughs.  It also embodies everything that’s both most effective and most lacking in Keanu Reeves’ latest blockbuster franchise.  The action pyrotechnics are dazzling, the callouts to his last blockbuster franchise amusing, but once the last gun stops firing, there’s nothing left.  Nothing to feel, think about, or care about, even as the story ends on yet another cliffhanger that practically ensures the next installment we all knew was coming and was sealed by the movie’s gargantuan opening box office haul.

It wasn’t always this way.  The first John Wick had a simplicity of premise that made for a sharp and clean, if fundamentally goofy, revenge narrative...

Retired, still legendary ex-assassin John Wick loses wife to cancer (or something).  Wife leaves grieving widower cute puppy to remember her by.  Stupid bad guys kill puppy for kicks and steal Wick’s car for good measure, not knowing who he is.  Wrathful Wick comes out of retirement to mete out vengeance.  That’s it.

True, the first movie also showed us intriguing glimpses of an assassins’ underworld with its own set of exacting, almost monastic or samurai-like rules, exemplified in the quietly luxurious Continental Hotel, on whose grounds no “business” could be transacted, and the gloriously craggy, troubled face of Willem Dafoe as Wick’s conflicted former mentor.  The second John Wick did a good deal more assassins’ world-building, arguably to excess, though it treated us to some picturesque travel scenery – including the Caracalla Baths in Rome – and upped the action ante with a climactic knife fight in a hall of mirrors.  Alas, the narrative lamely copped out with Wick saying, in essence, “fuck it” and breaking the sacro-sanctuary rules of the Continental, thereby becoming persona non grata with a bounty on his head and an open target for every other hit man or woman within striking distance (apparently, in one of the running jokes of the movies, every other resident of NYC).

Chapter 3: Parabellum picks up from this exact moment of excommunication, taking our anti-hero across the city, then all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to Africa and back – and once again tries to intersperse the breathless fight sequences with some more development of the John Wick universe mythology.  Unfortunately, the latter never rises above half-baked, notwithstanding a fair amount of solemn tongue-wagging about a “High Table” that supposedly sets the assassins’ creed and is represented in the film primarily by a gimlet-eyed androgynous “Adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon, looking like they stepped right out of The Matrix, even more so than Keanu) and the “one who sits above” the High Table (Saïd Taghmaoui), who appears to be located in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  Anjelica Huston and Halle Berry also show up as figures from John’s past who owe him favors they only reluctantly repay.  Both are underutilized, although Berry at least gets to show off her impressive fight training and an even more impressive pair of attack Malinoises (think scarier German shepherds).  But despite her best efforts to give her character some emotional shading, she just doesn’t have enough material to work with and disappears from the story hardly leaving a trace. 

Returnees from the previous movie(s) fare somewhat better: a dapper Ian McShane, along with the always-elegant Lance Reddick as the Continental’s unflappable proprietor and concierge, respectively, and Laurence Fishburne as a king of the underground, have more impactful roles.  Yet even they all end up feeling less like characters or even archetypes and more like game pieces being moved into position to set up the inevitable John Wick 4.  As for John himself, his personal motivations come across as generally muddled and unconvincing, and Keanu’s characteristically stoic demeanor doesn’t shed any light on them.  In the first movie, and to a lesser extent the second, we were at least able to accept that he really cared that much about his wife and his dog.  Here, the dog feels like an afterthought and the wife like an excuse.

Of course it’s fair to say no one goes to a John Wick movie for the plot, mythology, or character development.  We’re there for the fights, stunts, and action set pieces, and in that department director Chad Stahelski continues to deliver spectacularly, aided by the fluid cinematography and Keanu’s compelling physical presence and natural grace.  The first half of Parabellum in particular outdoes its predecessors in the sheer exhilarating inventiveness of its fight choreography, with a cornered and unarmed John deploying everything from a library book to a seemingly endless collection of antique knives to even horses as lethal weapons.  It’s all of course brutally violent, but because the camera never dwells for more than moment on the resulting carnage, these sequences feel less like an action movie and more like a hard R-rated ballet.  The most lasting damage we see is to Keanu’s body, which keeps getting punished and somehow keeps on ticking.  As with John Wick 2, it’s only when the movie tilts more heavily towards the “gun” part of its “gun fu” that I started to become disengaged and feel like I was watching a combat video game.  Only John’s confrontations with a trio of especially skilled assassins led by his most formidable opponent (played by veteran martial artist/actor Mark Dacascos) succeeded in reviving my interest, and even by then I was frankly fatigued, likely from overstimulation.

Is John Wick 3 worth watching? 

Sure, if you enjoyed the first two and want more of the same, and don’t mind a certain degree of diminishing returns even as the narrative grows baggier.  Whether the world needs even more John Wick movies is probably as pointless a question as whether we need more Marvel or Star Wars movies; like it or not, we’re getting them. As long as the filmmakers play to the strengths of the franchise, the audience will likely keep coming back.  I don’t know if I will.  If I do, it won’t be for the story, but for the purely sensory and visual pleasures of seeing what new choreographic tricks Stahelski et al. put into play, and Keanu continuing to defy his age in executing them.  If anything about that troubles me, it’s how little it troubles me.

GRADE: B- overall; A- for the fight scenes

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