JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3 – PARABELLUM

These films are better the second you realise they don’t take place on earth.

Yes it looks like our world but New York et al is merely the stage not the setting on which this tale elapses. With the Greek, Roman and altogether classical symbolism more blatantly rampant here than ever before, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is not of our world, he is a Demigod; scrambling to complete his tasks before the high table of Olympus.

References to rowboats, passage to the underworld, Dante etc being only a little more complex than can be found in a Dan Brown novel are by the by however. Returning Director Chad Stahelski, too Reeves’ stunt double across innumerable projects, assures us this universe is never so interested in it’s symbolism than the creative ways Wick can kill his ever-growing horde of pursuers.

Having John dispatch his first with a copy of Dante’s Inferno should drive the point home for anyone still thinking that this series has aspirations far beyond some of the most captivating, kinetically staged fight sequences in recent mainstream cinema.  

And the sequences are thrilling, with Reeves and his long-time collaborator behind the camera sharing a partnership rarely seen in film. Permitting a dynamism between cast and crew as interchangeable and seamless as ever, the talented creatives and indeed star being familiar and able to rely on each other to such a degree both grounds and illuminates the action either when Reeves is so evidently performing a dangerous stunt or one by it’s nature near-imperceptibly demands a stand-in.

It near goes without saying that Reeves is excellent in this role. It’s his best one to date; ideally suited to his emphatic if finite acting range. Fans of one of Hollywood’s most debated stars will relish his deadpan, rage-filled return.

Parabellum ramps it up for several sequences featuring among several prominent martial artists Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, both veterans of The Raid series; too a clear influence on the Wick films. One mirror-filled encounter, if a carbon copy in respects of John Wick 2’s penultimate clanger, is still transfixing to watch; the nicely foreshadowed addition of something as seemingly mundane as a belt being handled beautifully.

Mark Dacascos is the best of the bunch as Zero; a Wick fanboy and biggest foe. He is the only counter who is given much personality in this, save Asia Kate Dillon’s ‘Adjudicator,’ yet another symbol-ridden advent well-framed against the conveniently fiery dungeons of the Continental. Lance Reddick’s Concierge Charon, here returning for a third outing, gets a little bit more to do this time around with some welcome character development beyond being relegated to the wallflowers. Ian McShane does his God/Demigod thing.

Halle Berry joins proceedings as another Continental manager who deserves a film all on her own. Game of Thrones veteran/90’s heartthrob Jerome Flynn rocks up with a terrible Vito Corleone impression to cash in a paycheck.

Now to the plot dear me. Yes the answer to whether a film doesn’t have a plot is sometimes “but did you enjoy it” yet good films, and the first two Wick flicks certainly count among those, almost always have one to speak of.

Immediately picking up from the first sequel’s conclusion, John is now excommunicado (one of the film’s most entertainingly symbolic flourishes); running for his life from everyone in New York City – because everyone in New York is an assassin. Keeping this up for the better part of the first hour the initial action sequences, including one that takes place in what can only be an antique knife store, are the best of the film as fights, if brazen, become heavily repetitive.

Introducing a plot sometime around the second act it’s all over in 20 minutes and just a pretext for John to reunite with some other folk before carnage reignites. No the plot was not the best thing about the first John Wick film but it gave it a fun basis for striving in such creative directions; it’s simplicity endearing beyond all else. The absence of anything even remotely constituting the thought that went into the backbones of the first two films does not recommend Parabellum, nor do the attitudes of the villains to John.

Much of what drove John Wick was the incessant underestimation of John as his opponents, alongside us, gradually come to reckon with the extent of his destructive power. There’s no such turnaround here; with everyone primed and ready we get no such satisfactory arc for our main guy.

Moreover, for a film built on a universe of stated order, it annoyingly breaks its own rules. Seen not just in a needless subversion of the Continental rules at the moment John makes it to the hotel, the Adjudicator strangely goes out of their way to punish one of John’s allies for collaborating with him in the last entry even though they had clearly been acting according to the same laws handed down to everyone else.

When John does visit a locale that is not his home, the energy of the world wanes as the premise of simply anyone and everyone being an assassin nay resonates so strong. What makes the New York setting so palpable is simply, as McShane’s Winston pointedly elucidates, that such a world can exist within the hilariously exaggerated confines of this city as many are predictably busy doing their own thing and might not bother so much as to whether assassins’ games were going on around them. It doesn’t ring true in Parabellum’s other, much more traditional setting, nor in a confrontation in the middle of New York’s busiest transport hub where characters can inexplicably, frustratingly vanish.

It’s fine to imagine this world, as this author prefers, as one that only resembles our own to the extent that it is a backdrop, or otherwise a version of our planet where seeming millions of well-trained slaughterers can teem just beneath the surface. Recommending the Wick series as a classical, modern-set parable is fine, yet that doesn’t fly when this sequel makes ostensible strides to affirm the real-world setting while having characters miraculously evaporate into thin air or survive things no mortal possibly could.

Either direction is fine, you just can’t have it both ways. To note even Hercules, in most adaptations, had well-defined physical limits; no such luck for stretches here. When the symbolism does reach its height during an escapade in the wilderness it’s to diminishing effect in what is the least impressive sequence in the entire now saga.

We do thankfully get a little more insight into John’s world or underworld as you might have it with Anjelica Huston entering the fray, though why Belarus is always the go-to nondescript reference for intendedly clandestine action films where they don’t want to make up a country I’ll never know; it’s not that difficult to find on a map.

The ending embraces John Wick’s B movie roots more than anything to date; the series’ strongest departure from that otherwise roundly evinced as prestige schlock fare. Resembling favourite third person shooters in whole episodes as Wick dispatches differently-uniformed assailants depending on their garb with increasing numbers of shots, come for the action but really try not to think too hard about all this.  

 John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is in cinemas now