John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum ★★★★½

When I watched the first entry of this cataclysmically violent film series I had no real idea what I was getting into. Not just in the sense of the singular movie that was unfolding before me, but also pertaining to the wildly intense series and its inhumanly tireless protagonist. These films exist in this strange middle realm of spy/hitman actioners and borderline mythological displays of human endurance and suffering. Sure, they can be classified in a number of different ways, the least of which is simply an “Action” movie. But as the series has unfolded I find that trying to place these movies into any kind of easily defined pigeonhole genre is a waste of thinking, because they just don’t really adhere. The second film takes everything about the first film and amplifies it as far as one could think humanly possible. It dips further away from classic and simplistic revenge storytelling and begins to unfold a tapestry of byzantine underworld killers that exist in every corner and shadow. The reaches of its creatively viscious brutality gleefully and willingly went off the rails. The endurance of Wick and his unwillingness to let things like knives and fists and bullets slow him down became far more than merely far-fetched. The scope of its story, of its world, far surpassed the contained revenge killings of the first film. Everything was just simply more, and mostly for the better. Some of the elements that increased were at the detriment of the established narrative and motivations of the first film, the story unwinding and multiplying with a rapidity that was at odds with the core of what the first film was all about. It was bigger, it was angrier, it was far more complicated, it was bolder to an extent. And it was impossible, for me, to not be swept away in the tide of blood it left in its wake. When that loving ode to gratuitousness ended, on a cliffhanger I would have expected far more readily to see in a television show than a theatrical film, I was absolutely and unfixably hooked. I could not wait for this highly anticipated third entry in the chronicles of Wick and his cordite fueled reign of slaughter. I had already thought the first entry was a fantastic movie, I thought the sequel might have been the greatest American, original action film I had seen in ages. And with John Wick Chapter 3- Parabellum, I was excited to see how they could possibly rival that, how they could hope to top it. After seeing it late last night, with my brothers and a rowdy theater crowd, I was so pleased to see they had done everything they could to make this the most explosive and violent entry in the series. On the flip side of that coin, they had continued the trend of expansion, of unravelling and adding to the world and the story, and similarly to the second chapter that may not have been entirely necessary.

The story here picks up about a half hour after the second movies threat filled finale. John Wick is desperately trying to escape the killers that are littered in every corner of New York City. He is injured, he is tired, and he is alone. It doesn’t matter where he goes, who he sees, or what he does everyone is right behind him. And they all want the 14 million dollar bounty that is on his head. Some of these hitters don’t even bother to wait for the time to be up, and from very early in the film Wick is killing people with fists and knives and guns. And books. And horses. And this is all within the first twenty minutes or so. And then, just like the second film, it began to propel its story forward by any means necessary and slowly put some chinks in the armor of its action-set piece based storyline. Wick apparently has a plan, a far fetched one and a farther reaching one, and he will stop at nothing to bring his plan to fruition. The action rarely lets up as he goes about this, but there are plenty of detours and side characters and side stories, and not all of them help keep the movie moving forward. There are double crosses and triple crosses sprinkled throughout all this, an infuriating Adjudicator, and one of the best, and quirkiest, main villains this franchise, or any other outside the absurdity of Bond villains, has ever had.

This entry could very easily go down as one of the best action movies of all time. I could easily see this film being stamped with such a prestigious, to some, medal and I wouldn’t really argue against that stance. It could just as easily bump the John Wick films into a realm of greatest trilogies ever conceived, and I again would not refute that. I really do love these movies, and with each successive entry I have been blown away and morbidly giddy at the savagery unfolding before me. I cannot see this movie hurting the films saga, I couldn’t see it damning the trilogy or ruining the hard earned reputation of operatic massacring that it is warranted. But, with those facts established, there are a few things that hold me back from bestowing this a five star rating and proclaiming it as the flawless masterpiece of mayhem it could easily have been,

Pacing, especially in a film like this, is crucial for any number of reasons. There is an ebb and a flow to the proceedings, a back and forth that allows room for not only the characters but the audience to breathe. But there is a difference to genuine and organic pacing of the story and pacing that is at the mercy of the ever evolving plot, and that difference was fairly noticeable to me in this outing. The movie starts off and almost instantly kicks the audience in the chest and seems to find extreme joy in not letting us catch our breath or settle our heartbeats. It started strong and just one-upped itself for almost a solid half hour with very little time for relief. The intensity of the ticking clock and the hordes upon hordes of killers is all encompassing and the battles Wick finds himself in increase accordingly. Me, my brothers, and everyone else in that theater didn’t stop gasping, clapping, calling out, laughing, and just going ape shit at the ballet of brutality that was playing out in front of us. It was fucking wild to put it very simply. But then it starts to hit a snag. It’s not a snag that was unavoidable or necessary because of anything that necessarily needed to be done. It was a forced snag, one that if it was the only instance in the 2 hour and 11 minute runtime would be completely forgivable and nothing more than a blip, an anomaly that could be easily forgotten. But it was a forced snag that led, haltingly, to a few others that quickly became less easy to discard.

Wick finds himself, with some regularity, in these almost forced conversations with people scattered around the world that help propel the plot forward, but only after severely slowing it down. Maybe most of that has to do with the fact that we, the viewers, have no idea what that plot is exactly. I think most people, I know myself at least, were under the impression that this film was all about Wick’s forced escape from New York and his need to kill all those in his way. That IS the plot, at its base, but there’s apparently a lot more to it. And John Wick knows what that plot is but does not deem it necessary to let us in on it, until it is actually happening. Some of the scenes are fun, or funny, but they’re just kind of squeezed in between all these wonderful action scenes that they act as the dual edged sword that propels the movie forward while also slicing off its legs. He needs to meet a woman to help him get passage out of NY, which leads to a long conversation of hidden agendas and stingily unrevealed backstory. This leads to another woman from his past with more unshared history. Which leads to a guy we know nothing about. Which leads to another guy we’ve never heard of and yet another layer of the High Table. All of this also serving as reasoning for the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to then go around and have more conversations with some of these people while she recruits more killers to get Wick. It kicks the movie forward and around, it all serves some kind of purpose for John Wick’s journey and the story itself, but a lot of it does slows down what is essentially a multi-day fight for survival.

I realize that some breathers are, theoretically, necessary. Especially for a movie as high octane as this one. And if those pauses make sense organically then I’m all about them. But these seques seemed forced, seemed only necessary because without them the filmmakers wouldn’t have really known what to do with the story or the character. It seemed as if the non-action elements of the story were kind of made up as the film went along. First Wick is here and now he’s here and then he’s there again. There’s an entire section in the middle of the movie, that while it has some great action scenes, doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the movie as a whole. For a little while the movie became fairly stop and start in its momentum that made the pace of the whole piece just a little off. It would build and build and build and then explode with these absolutely insane set pieces and then it would go off on these side quests, these tangents that are only loosely associated with the central plot of the film, then when it kicks back into gear I found myself having to ramp back up to the intensity the story had left behind and then blindly jumped right back into. Don’t get me wrong, at all. This didn’t ruin the movie for me and was only a small complaint against a movie that was epic in all other areas. But it was noticeable to me and it did detract from this being the complete masterpiece I felt it could have been.

A lot of those pacing issues I mentioned did have to do with the story, but let’s be honest here and admit no one is really here for the story. Not in John Wick. Sure, it needs to make sense and drive, but I’m there for the action and gunplay and violence. That’s the hook and that’s what got my ass in the seat. The storyline of this entry might be more straightforward in the start and more aligned with the first entry, but once it’s revealed it becomes only slightly more comprehensible than number 2 and in actuality nowhere near as simplistically engaging as the first film. It’s a rambling tale this time out that’s a little bit all over the place. It’s survival, it’s revenge, it’s betrayal. It’s everything all at once without much of a central focus. Wick not dying is obviously the main component of what the film is about, but it gets layered over under all the other tidbits that are added on as the movie moves along. It almost played out like a bait and switch scenario. When it started the movie seemed to be exclusively about the established issue of John Wick being hunted down and his needing to escape, but all of sudden that becomes secondary to a series of other plots that all battle for dominance.

The trend of these movies becoming slightly more and more mythological in nature is never more apparent than it is in this film. Beyond Wick’s inability to bleed out or die of simple exhaustion is the world itself in which he lives. Its scope and size, its power and influence, its inner workings and global networks are even further explored here and then taken just a step further. There is an entire sequence of Wick wandering through a desert, near death from exhaustion as the sun sets and the moon rises, trudging through the dunes in his impeccable suit that seemed far more legendary and myth like than anything else in the franchise. John Wick himself, at this point, is legendary to his peers in that world and to the movie going audience. His exploits and the exploits of the films have far exceeded simple puply noir. With each subsequent entry the movies get more and more outside of any kind of reality and more willingly embrace the grand scale of their own mythos. This movie dove right into that aspect and ran with it.

A built in issue with this kind of plot development, and this further acceptance of a myth-like story, is the lack of any real closure that this movie would supposedly contain. I know that when I went into this film I was expecting this to be the end of an epic trilogy, a conclusion to a storyline and a world and a person. I anticipated this being the end of the beloved bullet riddled franchise with perhaps some chances of the inevitable, and already announced, spinoffs. But the more then movie went on, the deeper into the rabbit hole, or bullet hole, we went the more I realized that would not be the case at all. The more that was revealed, the more double crosses that took place, the more hidden motivations that were brought to light, the more it became obvious that this simply couldn’t be the final movie. That there was clearly so much more to tell, to learn, to survive. The last few minutes of this film were the weakest of the bunch in my eyes, simply because they were predictable in some ways and utterly ridiculous in others. They were just as forced as the rapidly multiplying plots. There is no closure here, there is only the promise of more bloodshed, eventually.

Honestly though that doesn’t matter to me quite as much. It’s a shame that the narrative was so scattered that it slowed the momentum of the central story by adding so much to it, but the story is, in a weird way, the least important element of John Wick movies. The first is about revenge against those that killed his dog. The second is honoring an old contract and learning about the world Wick lives in while trying to escape it. This film is about him surviving that world, conquering that world, overtaking that world, burying that world, rejoining that world, and all the while those around him are trying to control that world. It’s sprawling in its scope, far more so than the second entry and wildly more so than the first, but it might be the least focused of the three as far as plots go. There may be no closure and it may have been a misdirecting con to insinuate it as such, but the silver living to that is the fact that inevitably John Wick will return. As I said though, when John Wick is slaying everything that moves with anything he can get his hands on, who the fuck cares if the plot is a little rambling as long as the action delivers.

And holy shit, does it ever. This is by far the most intense, creative, and staggeringly brutal entry in the series thus far. Screenwriters, of which there are four, outdid themselves in the setups for this film. Derek Kolstad, the man behind the entire character, working alongside Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams have outdone themselves this time around. They may have fucked up the flow of the movie and some of the finer details of its sprawling and almost myth like plot, but when it comes to pushing Wick into situations of extreme violence they have only gotten better as the series has progressed. But a lot of the credit, if not most of it, goes to director Chad Stahelski who has helmed all three entries. That dude knows how to shoot a fight scene like very few others in the business. He knows exactly how far to go so it seems like that’s as much punishment as one man can take, as many people as could possibly be killed, as many weapons and moves possible to utilize, and then he takes it just a little further. It is incredible to behold and absolutely mesmerizing to watch. It is savagery in motion, a test to the viciousness of rage and the power of self preservation. It is an opera, a ballet of bullets and death that flows seamlessly as the action unfolds. It’s watching high art in its most violent forms. The most intense, the more brutal, the more extended and overwhelming the better it is. Smiles crease faces and laughs slip out unprovoked at the creative and flawlessly scripted sense of improvisation Wick utilizes to kill all those that try to take him down. It’s absolute insanity, complete blood gushing bedlam with John Wick in its center, neve fazed and never down for the count.

I’m not sure who the fight choreographer(s) were for this film and when I try to look it up I just see a bunch of people credited as being a part of the “fight team”. But whoever was in charge of staging these fights and gun battles absolutely outdid themselves. If I thought the second movie had the best action scenes, gun fights, and fist fights I had seen from an American production, this movie simply puts it to shame. The stagings, the intensity, the anger and desperation from Wick’s dedicated plight of survival, it is all jaw dropping. There is brutality, gore, intensity, fast paced and more drawn out demonstrations of human destruction. There is even a certain kind of wildly dark humor infused with the ceaseless carnage, a kind of shocked funniness at how insane the violence becomes and what weapons and animals are taken advantage of for those displays. It has every kind of fight scene that I could have possibly wanted, from fists to swords to guns to dogs to motorcycles to horses. It’s truly got it all and each skirmish is staged, edited, plotted, and choreographed to an unbelievable degree.

The set pieces here are almost as amazing as the severe beatdowns and killings that take place within them. From a wickedly violent library fight, to a comically visceral knife fight in a museum, to horse stables and motorcycle sword fights, to gun battles in run down seaside castles and high tech high rises, this movie has just about everything one could want as far as action goes. Sword fights, knife fights, gun fights, fist fights, this film is an all encompassing melee of the various ways one can deconstruct and destroy the human body. Most notably the head. The set pieces for gigantic fight scenes, such as the ones throughout this entire franchise, are almost as important as the fights themselves. Sure, there can big and effective fight scenes in a room and they can be amazing, as evidenced at least twice in the first Raid movie, but when that extra effort is put into making the locations as integral as the choreography it adds a little extra to what was already an awesome scene. It is a visually engaging film to the same extent that it is viscerally engaging. It’s a beautiful movie to look at and cinematographer Dan Laustsen captures each set piece and locale beautifully. Whether it’s Wick running through torrential rain through neon lit streets, to gun battles in disused forts, library fights to swords fights in a room of windows and changing neon colors, to bike chases on closed bridges and walks through moon tinted desert, the movie is fucking gorgeous. It adds a whole other level to the proceedings, a whole extra layer of things to love about this movie. The fights and gun battles take center stage, as they rightfully should, but everything around the combatants is nothing to sleep on either.

Much like the choreography and cinematography, the music in this film also helps add to that mythological nature, that operatic beauty of the store. Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard have composed a score that is equal parts old-time religious cathedral music and grand opera. It is a soaring score of musical notes, and they placed these musical numbers perfectly. Some of the fight scenes are devoid of any sounds besides the grunts and crunches of the people destroying each other, and sometimes that’s all the music that’s needed. There is something primal and engaging about hearing nothing beyond breaking furniture and punches and kicks landing, and that works wonderfully for this movie. But when the set pieces extend far past the point of human durability and those songs kick in a gradually build and build and soar as the bodies pile up, it is an impressively and almost overwhelmingly immersive experience. All of these elements tie together in a way that I struggle to define as anything less than masterfully.

The rest of the credit for this, beyond Chad Stahelski’s focused direction, is the cast. This film probably has the biggest cast of speaking roles and each and every one of them holds their own. Anjelica Huston manages to exude power and confidence, and be quietly intimidating, in her small cameo role. Halle Berry is gorgeous and deadly and shows some fantastic action skills in an extended gun battle. Her role, ultimately, may have been a little more than a glorified cameo used to bridge the first and third acts of the film, but she owned the character and took over the screen whenever she was on it. Asia Kate Dillon had an entire theater wishing her a horrible death, so she definitely did her job and emerged, quietly and with no action, as a great new antagonist. Most of the other key players from the previous installments are back and just as good as they’ve always been. Ian McShane as Winston is as charismatic as ever, Lance Reddick as concierge Charon finally gets to get some action in, Laurence Fishburne is as over the top and awesome as always. There is a glorious cameo fight, a brutal one, from some of my favorite martial artists today, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman from the Raid films. But the main stars of the show shine harder and brighter than anyone else.

First off is Mark Dacascos as the main hitman Zero. That man may have stolen the show. He is brutal, efficient, and hilarious. Every time he was on the screen he was either getting a big laugh or shocking people that seemed to have forgotten that he is also a decorated martial artist. He is my absolute favorite villain of the franchise so far. He is so quirky and weird and vicious that I hope this movie catapults him back into the spotlight and some heavy hitting roles. And then there’s the man himself, Keanu Reeves. He is John Wick. He fully embodies that character and all of the quirks and mainstays of Reeves’ acting style and personality strengthen the character in ways I don’t think anyone else really could. He has so perfectly captured the character that I find it impossible to picture anyone else playing the titular mass murdering hitman demigod. His stoicism, his low voice and minimal dialogue (though much more than in the previous films), his haunted and angered look. Every movement, every line, every look will forever belong to Keanu. Much like he has become identified with several cult classic characters, from comedies to dramas to action to science fiction, he has another name to add to his list of notable and cult status characters. These movies, inarguably now, would not be what they are without Keanu Reeves and his completely all encompassing and endless engaging performance. Plus the fact that he does all of his own stunts and fights and gun play is a testament to how perfectly he owns this role entirely.

I loved this movie, and I love this franchise. It is one of my all time favorite action sagas and I hope to see much more from this universe of killers. Almost everything I could have wanted for this third entry is present here. It is bigger, it is badder, it is more brutal. The fights are crazier and better. The characters are engaging. The music is wonderful, the film is beautiful. There are problems, but most of them are overshadowed by the mastery of everything else around them. The stop and start can be jarring, the lack of any real closure and another cliffhanger ending was a bit unexpected, but neither of those things counteracts the incredibleness of the action, the acting, the music, the settings. It’s enough for me to not warrant it a full five stars, but I already feel that upon a rewatch, an inevitable rewatch, my stance on that will change.

This is going to go down as one of the best action movies of all time, and as I said I will not argue that. The John Wick Saga is one of the greatest action series of all time, and I will not refute that fact. It will not be a trilogy, it can’t be, and I am thankful for that fact. These movies are an Eden of explosive violence and breathtaking action and I cannot get enough of them. I recommend all of them to everyone that loves their action brutal and relentless. As long as they keep making them, and continue to better themselves and top themselves and maybe reel in their frantically changing stories, I will always be down to watch them. Time to reload and wait for the next war on human endurance. I personally can’t wait.