John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum | Directed by Chad Stahelski | Action | 2h 10m
It’s getting more and more difficult for Mr. Bond to justify his existence in the multiplex. His last four films have been all over the place, beginning with the exquisite CASINO ROYALE and culminating in the downright silly SPECTRE. While individual entries have been very good, Craig’s franchise as a whole has struggled to define exactly what it wants to be.
Such inconsistency would be one thing if the Bond franchise existed in isolation, but it’s been overtaken from almost all directions. Nothing in any recent Bond film has come close to matching the extraordinary spectacle of the past two MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE entries, in which Tom Cruise did everything from literally hanging on to the side of an aeroplane, to literally performing his own HALO jump, to learning how to fly a helicopter – literally. Nothing in any recent Bond film has come as close to capturing the flavour of the older, more absurd ones than KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (although the less said about the truly putrid sequel the better). And absolutely nothing in any recent Bond film has captured action nearly as viscerally as the JOHN WICK trilogy.
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM (meaning “fleshy hiatus between the scrotum and anus”) begins where the second chapter left off: John has been declared excommunicado, a consequence of his breaking the rules of the Continental, and is on the run before all the other contract killers can come for his head. If this sounds quite impenetrable, then it might be best to do a quick read up on Wick mythology before going in to PARABELLUM (maybe take a gander at Wick-i-pedia? Ey? Wick-i-pedia?). One of the franchise’s strengths is that it’s built up a strange but quite endearing world, in which every other person on the street is hiding an assortment of deadly weapons in their trouser pockets, and where certain locations are designated as safe spots where no murder is allowed to happen. It makes more sense in context.
Ian McShane, Lawrence Fishburne, and Lance Reddick are back in their supporting roles, and do a fine job for the brief time they are on-screen. New additions to the cast also briefly appear, like Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston, and Jerome Flynne (who is doing the most bizarre accent I have ever heard – I cannot even work out what accent he thinks it is). Berry’s is the most substantial role, and she gets one very impressive action sequence (accompanied by two very good dogs, whom I love). At the heart of it all is Keanu Reeves as John. He doesn’t often pause for conversations, but he doesn’t have to.
Almost everyone around John Wick exists solely to provide plot details – details which tell John where he needs to go to dole out his next set of executions. You see, John has a preternatural talent for violence, managing to kill people in ever more creative ways. He employs the standard arsenal of guns and knives of course, but hardback books and horses are also used in his escapades. Every fight scene is expertly choreographed, though none ever stray into the territory of being too well-prepared. Everything looks spontaneous enough to remain exciting. It’s brutal, bloody violence too. There’s no cutting away to spare the audience the detail.
John Wick is not only very good at killing, he’s very good at surviving. Within the first five minutes, he sustains a puncture of his subclavian artery, and deals with it very well. It is his capacity to withstand punishment could render the film unengaging and yet, for the most part, it doesn’t. This is where Keanu Reeves’ physical performance comes in: it’s very well judged, never letting John seem quite indestructible. Every time he’s knocked down, he struggles just a bit more to get up again. Towards the end I actually started to worry about his back, because I’d seen him slammed into the ground more times than I could count. The JOHN WICK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE franchises are really doing overtime to prove there should be some sort of Academy Award recognition for the stunt teams.
All of this would be for nought if the camera work wasn’t so well-handled. It might have been tempting to go all Bourne and employ shaky-cam in an effort to make the action seem more frenetic, but doing so would also have made it incomprehensible. The joy of the JOHN WICK films is getting to see every last grizzly detail. The long takes, seamlessly stitched together with clever editing (I’m assuming – apologies if I’m wrong, but I think they were hiding cuts in there) capture the action well.
The film looks quite brilliant, if a little clichéd. New York City is shot almost always in the dark, while it’s raining, and I don’t know that there’s a single frame set in the city which doesn’t feature a neon light casting the streets in bright primary colours. When the narrative meanders outwith the city, there’s more variety, with some impressive shots silhouetting John’s shadow against the desert’s dunes.
The absolute stand-out of the film, though, is the sound design, which is better than I’ve heard in just about any other film. The gunshots have weight and sound frightening, the knives sound sharp as they cut through flesh and muscle alike, and the roars of motorcycle engines make you vibrate in your seat. Most remarkable is the sound of bones shattering and splintering, driving home the viciousness of every single punch and kick. In the screening I was at, the more horrible the noise from the film, the more appalled the audience sounded in reply. There were horrified gasps at the snap of a hyoid bone, as well as a genuine scream when a car ploughed into someone. (And weirdly, when a character on the screen told John Wick to “do what you do best”, the man sat next to me grumbled “kill the fuckers” under his breath).
When PARABELLUM slows down to deal with some plot, it’s pretty hammy, and it’s easy to get restless. But thankfully, the filmmakers seem aware of this as well, because it’s never too long until there’s another action beat. Each of these is so well constructed, so technically brilliant, that they’re never once boring. The characters could absolutely stand to be better fleshed out. The film could almost definitely stand to be thematically richer. A little more variety, particularly as the film approaches its climax, could have been good. But in the moment, none of that matters. JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM is such an unrelenting experience that it’s better to just go with it.