DIRECTED BY: CHAD STAHELSKI
THE FILM: As much as we collectively seem to adore Keanu Reeves and this latest treasure cache of John Wick movies I couldn’t honestly tell you right now if I think he’s a decent actor. And frankly it really doesn’t matter in 2019. His likability crossed the helix of his ability around six minutes into Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and his millions of devotees haven’t looked back since.
Like his character, John Wick, Keanu’s suitable for micro-specific, privileged jobs only.
When it comes to playing across the table from Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula? It’s a mystery how he even found success in Hollywood. When he’s stomping in the throats of hundreds of different men and women in John Wick however? We simply refuse to accept any other substitute. Maybe the same could be said for John Wick as a whole. Likability – as with its hangcool lead – is everything. Tactical porn should have had the shelf life of a single eighty-minute feature film. We’re now at least six hours into Wick aerating brain pans and full-body hurling bad men to the ground. This should get old at some point. As should Keanu Reeves.
The miracle here is the temporal obstinance of both.
Parabellum is much of what you’ve seen before. This is westernized Tokyo Noir (accessorized with a legitimate contingent of Asian stunt performers this time out) with all the seductive fashion and ultra-violence we’ve come to expect from the franchise. John Wick has the woo factor of John Woo with nearly none of the Chow Yun Fat. (until now – we’ll get to that in a minute) The set pieces are excessive and generous and pebbled with skull fragments. In fact, the opening twenty minutes of Wick 3 might just contain the most viscerally satisfying action sequences in this franchise till now.
We find John exactly where we left him at the end of John Wick 2. Beaten to a bloody pulp and trying to stay three steps ahead of a fifteen million dollar bounty the overlords of the Continental consortium have put on his head. Within minutes John finds himself clashing with a genuine giant in the folklore section of the New York Public Library. It’s a clever bit of allegory soon giving way to a gratifying homage to the maybe the most classic scene in the preeminent western of the twentieth century – Tuco’s custom pistol assembly in Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. And all this followed by maybe the greatest knife fight anyone’s orchestrated in cinema in decades – of this fact I’m certain. Our test screening audience howled like lustful strip club patrons during this sequence. The action was just too hot to keep quiet.
At this point, so early in the beginning of this sequel, we can’t help but to dare dream the impossible. What if this is all John Wick 3 is? A Raid Redemption/Fury Road style continuous action set piece masquerading as a three act thriller? What if there’s no real story to speak of? Because that’s never hurt John Wick before. In fact one could argue that low-cal storytelling helped the original film immensely. If true wouldn’t John Wick Chapter 3 have potential to be the greatest action movie the world has ever seen? The Roman Colosseum rebuilt out of celluloid vignettes of gladiator combat – would we not be entertained?
Tragically – but by no means terminally – Derek Kolstad’s script takes its foot off the gas after round one. The brilliance of the original John Wick is it felt like it just wasn’t enough movie. Too lean, too mean, too gorgeous, (thinking of that bathhouse set piece set to Kaleida’s ‘Think’ here) to say goodbye to so soon. At two hours and twenty-three minutes Parabellum is simply too much movie. Like many of us it’s a bit too pudgy around the middle.
Most of John Wick’s magic is in its blueprint of world-building in lieu of plot. By the third chapter it seems this mythological land of gunfighters and stone killers is still under construction. Unfortunately by way of the many ordinances and codes of conduct imposed by the ‘High Table.’ (an assassin union’s upper management if you’re interested – my guess is you won’t be) The High Table are those of the carrying-the-ruler-around-prom variety. Heavily regulating the six-inches-between-dancers variety. An international consortium of professional cock-blockers if you will.
And damn if they don’t enjoy breaking out the tape measure. Which is where we get most of the dysfunctional dialogue in John Wick 3.
For example: “You gave John Wick seven bullets. You shall receive seven cuts.” This is writing so dreadful you’ll want to spit vomit from your ears. (it seems eardrums do have gag reflexes after all) It’s during these moments of auditory agitation we begin to wonder the cosmic question of John Wick’s supernatural will to live.
What keeps this dead man running? Why doesn’t Keanu’s character throw his hands up at this point, with this much heat, and call it a life well lived? In almost perfectly tuned synchronicity with the now, potentially wandering thoughts of his audience, John answers his existential crisis for us during the second act:
“If I die her memory dies.”
He says this in maybe the closest stretch to a run-on sentence Wick 3’s script allows. Which is the wrong answer of course. It’s too saccharine at this point in the film when the audience is craving more salt. The correct answer is: Baba Yaga is the man to beat. And to replace the man to beat and be the man to beat you’ve got to beat the man to beat. John Wayne proved as much in The Shootist.
Smartly the film doesn’t wallow too much in the mythology trough. By round three Chad Stahelski’s film cues up Mr. Wick’s wayward fan club of Asian assassins. A ninja consort who single-handedly pull this sequel out of the gutter it was beginning to feel keen to crawl into.
You must understand a man of John Wick’s flavor has his admirers. They’re not fainting-at-the-sight-of-him Beatles fans, (feinting more like it) but you can practically feel their interior conflict as they’d (in this instance, quite literally) kill for a chance to take a quick selfie with Wick amid their flurry of knife plunges and kicks to his midsection. They, like us, absolutely adore the guy. But fifteen million dollars is fifteen million dollars, and this clan needs to get paid.
Wick 3’s casting department tactically pulls actors from The Raid Redemption series and – in a blast from the past too delectable not to comment on – Mark Dacascos from Brotherhood of the Wolf. (Dacascos’ character Zero pretty much heisting every scene he’s in) Suddenly the burdensome second act is soon a mirage. Something we may or may not have experienced with John Wick on his prolonged walkabout following stellar constellations through the Moroccan desert. (I’m not even kidding)
Anyway that’s behind us now.
The third act of Wick 3 is so full of bullets and base anarchy that the bloat of unfortunate plotting and dialogue from the middle of the film soon fade into something akin to folklore.
And perhaps that’s how this series of action films will be remembered twenty years from now – as folklore. The Age of Baba Yaga. The line these particular films walk between sophisticated and stupid is dangerously thin already. And it’s even more precarious in Parabellum. And yet John Wick 3 manages to find its footing on the slippery slope it has managed to scale twice before. All the way to the top this time.
THE VERDICT: Parabellum’s slope may be slippery but that could just as easily be translated as slick. This is a cool action film, one guaranteed to have you stifling the need to audibly cheer seven or eight different times in its molten-hot first and third acts.