John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum has the actions, not the consquences (Review #39)

In my 2017 review of John Wick Chapter 2 for Flixist dot com, I welcomed with open arms the prospect of a new long-running action franchise.

I concluded, “Why not keeping upping the ante until we hit John Wick: Chapter 8 (running alongside the trailer for Sweet Sixteen & Furious)? I think that it has a few more entries to go before it could really jump the shark, at which point honestly I think an ultra-violent Buster Keaton movie would be pretty awesome.”

And while I still believe in the long-term viability of John Wick, I somehow gave the team both too much and too little credit.

Because boy howdy that shark has already been jumped.

Hello anyone, everyone, and welcome to The Week I Review. You can call me Oh So Conflicted, because today I’m talking about John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum.

It’s worth noting here that John Wick being franchised marked a significant point in my romantic life. The first movie-date – and the second date period – that Danielle and I went on was to see Chapter 2. After an initial plan fell through due to weather, I went alone, loved it, and then left New York for a little while, quite sure, sadly, that we would never meet again. But when I got back, she still wanted to see what Keanu Reeves had been up to – and the rest is history, or whatever.

Point is, two years later, both of us were extremely excited to see Parabellum opening night.

And afterwards both of us were in agreement that something in the newest installment was… off.

I’ve had some trouble really articulating my issues because of the truth is that this movie is Awesome with a capital a in that it genuinely inspires awe with its action sequences. Even at their weakest, Parabellum’s fight scenes beat the pants off anything else you’d find in Hollywood.

In Chapter 2, I had fixated on a line about the different cultures under the high table: specifically Italians, Russians, and Chinese. Having already dispatched the first two, I was so excited at the prospect that Chapter 3 might bring the Chinese into the fold and presumably with them a much greater focus on hand-to-hand combat. And while it turns out they went more Japanese than Chinese… same difference.

Which is great, because though Parabellum’s predecessors have cool fist/knife fights, they play a clear second fiddle to the pew pew pew. The scale hasn’t tipped entirely in the other direction, but there is a much heavier emphasis on punch punch kick throw kick etc. this time around, and I’m so here for it.

There’s a reason that the legends of John Wick recounted in its first two installments aren’t about how good he is with a gun: It’s about the fact that he killed people with a pencil. And it’s why the moment when he finally kills two people with a pencil in Chapter 2 stands out amongst the literally hundreds of other murders. It’s the same reason that Wick takes down so many people with complex throws and puts them into various locks and what-have-you in the middle of gunfights when he pretty clearly could have just headshotted them like he did everyone else. Because the creative team knows that a genuinely video-game-like corridor of nothing but headshots numbs your mind. They need to mix it up.

It’s why I would argue that the opening fifteen-or-so minutes of Parabellum are basically perfect. Beginning mere moments after Chapter 2 ends, though with sunny skies replaced by rainy night because movies, our hero has less than an hour before he is marked ex-communicado and an open contract for $14 million is placed on his head.

Where can he go? What can he do? He stands in Times Square, and once again the blank face of Buster Keaton appears, just for a moment, high above him… but here, rather than a stunt ending in Keaton flying through a wall, it’s him on the front of a train as it rushes towards the camera. Tick tock, Mr Wick.

A trip to the library results in an excellent start to the festivities, after which someone in the audience shouted “WITH A BOOK?!” Which was annoying but also damn that was cool.

And it just got cooler from there. Until the moment where that sheer perfection gave way to artifice. And that moment is actually in the trailer! It’s right here! I didn’t watch the trailer before going in, though I did see the set photo of Keanu Reeves on a horse. So I knew it was coming, and I was thrilled, but the cut in this trailer is strategic, because half a second after this, that stuntman and his motorcycle turn into an awful pile of CG followed by some terrible green screen work.

I don’t have a fundamental problem with CG enhancement of practical effects. Hell, this series is built on that, what with all of those digital bloodsprays from digital bullets digitally hitting actual people. They may not be quite as visceral as squibs, but they’re generally fine in Hollywood films.

But it really has to be enhancement. When that motorcycle man got replaced, it was the first time in the entire series that I FELT the change. It just looked bad.

In Parabellum’s defense, this scene is an outlier. There are other motorcycle sequences that don’t have those same issues… but John Wick being on the horse should have exemplified why these films stand out even amongst the upper echelon of modern fight movies, and it didn’t deliver.

But it did push things over the edge. John Wick’s shark-jumping moment is him hanging off a horse while riding down a poorly green screened New York City street.

John Wick the first takes place in this occasionally silly world of assassins but couldn’t really be considered “Silly.” The narrative was serious, the situations were serious, and though John Wick was the babayaga he could be hurt and that actually mattered. Heck, the first action you see is him being beaten up by some goons, unable to fight back. Later, he gets hit by a car, and then they can capture him because he’s down.

The sequel changed that. He gets hit by a car and then he gets back up. Slowly, sure, and with gritted teeth, but he’s fine. There is still some drama here, but the entire thing is far less grounded in reality.

Parabellum goes so much farther than I had expected towards just the genuinely wacky. While one might be tempted to compare Parabellum to Gareth Evans’ ouvre, particularly given some of the casting, it’s much more appropriate to compare it to Jackie Chan’s – who, by the way, has cited Buster Keaton as an influence, alongside Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd
– just with a few hundred more gallons of blood.

We’re in full-on action comedy territory at this point, but absolutely brutal, R-rated action comedy. It all feels a little too much too soon. We’re only in the third installment and completely past the point of self-parody. Chapter 2 introduced the idea that literally everyone knows who John Wick is – whether they’re in the Continental or not. Chapter 3 goes farther by making people into actual fans. Again, you see this in the trailer, where it is sort of odd but feels of a piece with how ridiculous the whole thing is. But when we get to that moment in the film, it’s so much stranger.

Parabellum’s world has a weird relationship with its main character. What stuck out to me as actually problematic was just how little weight the events of Chapter 2 seemed to have. Sure, the final act or so set the broader events in motion, but every single time someone talks about John Wick coming out of retirement, they comment on the thing about the dog and the car. No one talks about the fact that Santino D’Antonio destroyed his house and then tried to have him killed for something he had no choice but to do in order to complete his marker.

All of that is immaterial, I guess, when jokes can be made about a car and a dog.

Which retroactively makes Chapter 2 less compelling, because I genuinely liked how the story progressed and expanded in the second outing. But outside of a few key moments towards the end, it turns out to have all been meaningless. Spectacle for its own sake.

And that is built into Parabellum itself. When you look back at this movie’s 130-minute run, you have to wonder what actually happened. Do we end in a place that’s meaningfully different than when we started? No, not really. Could literally everything of consequence be put in its entirety into a 90-second “Last Time On John Wick” at the start of the all-but-guaranteed-considering-that-first-weekend-box-office Chapter 4? It sure feels like it.

This was not inevitable – not yet, anyway. There was more drama to tell from John Wick’s life. The entire Morocco thing could have had impact but… it just doesn’t. Halle Berry’s whole arc should mean something, but nope. And while it is impossible to be anything but impressed by what the team accomplishes on a technical level with the action sequences there – particularly the addition of dogs to the proceedings – it was also the place I felt the least invested. And I think it goes back to what I was saying about guns just not being that interesting. This is the most gun-heavy action sequence of the entire film, with a body count that alone dwarf’s Chapter One’s entire 100 minutes, and it’s genuinely too much. I never thought I would think such a thing about a John Wick movie, but here we are.

The action, as always, is shot in a way that never obscures what’s happening, but there’s just so much death and destruction in this wide-open space that actually trying to keep track is a fool’s errand. Eventually, you just get numb and wait for it to be over.

I liked this sequence at the time, and I still like it now, but I felt cold. I wasn’t excited – just appreciative. And it was practically forgotten by the time Wick left.

Once he got back to the city, I became more invested in the action, because it scaled things down and allowed for a more intimate combat. Here we also get to see The Raid 2’s Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Rahman in action, which is awesome, although having them here makes clear that the actual complexity of the choreography is scaled back a bit from what you’d see in a Gareth Evans production. I mentioned this to my former Flixist EIC, who said, “We can’t compare everything to Gareth Evans or we’re just going to be let down by the entire damn world.”

And he’s not wrong.

But in those opening 15 minutes, it honestly felt to me like this movie could overtake The Raid 2 as my favorite fight movie. I was actually a little concerned, because five years ago I did an entire YouTube video for Flixist about why I gave The Raid 2 a 9.7/10, and what would that have meant for Parabellum’s score?

But it turns out that those first fifteen minutes are Parabellum’s best. After that, it goes from incredible to merely great. And “great” is nothing to sneer at – indeed, it’s something to be celebrated – but when it gives you a glimpse of what it could have been, it’s hard to not be at least a little disappointed about what it actually is.

But only a little.

Eight Point Four out of ten

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