How do you follow John Wick and John Wick: Chapter Two? The filmmakers decide to delve deep into mythology but don’t spare the action: it’s bonecrunching heaven even if it’s third best in the series, though it’s miles above anything else in the genre.
Immediately picking up after Chapter Two, Chapter 3 (Parabellum is Latin for “prepare for war”, and a type of bullet round) throws us into John’s frantic attempts to escape New York before his “excommunication” for breaking the criminal world’s rules comes into effect, and he becomes every assassin’s target for $14m. Chaos, gunfire, stabbing and killing people with whatever comes to hand ensues.
Straight off the bat: if you get bored of action, don’t bother! You know if you’ll like this – especially if you watched the first two. For action junkies awaiting their Wick fix, the first 20 minutes are absolute heaven – I had one of the best audience experiences in a cinema involving shared whooping, laughing and even audible cringing at the violence!
Yet what follows is interesting but disappointing, a largely plodding middle enlivened by an insane sequence in Casablanca, and finally a bravura, epic conclusion in NYC. For me, this film takes the good parts of one and two and tries to make a better cocktail, which doesn’t quite work – but you can forgive its failures when you enjoy it as much as I did.
Director Chad Stahelski has been robbed by not having been picked for every goddamn action movie out there – co-director on the first film David Leitch has already directed Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2! As Keanu Reeves’ former stuntman, Stahelski has an amazing understanding of action, and combines this with expertise as a martial artist and director to present and stage fights and set pieces perfectly.
We can always see what’s going on – such a rarity in movie action that it bears repeating how weirdly innovative it feels! Stahelski is not afraid to throw in extreme violence unpredictably, and show it in slow, agonising motion rather than cutting away, which gives some scenes a proper bite. Where he falls down a little is prefunctory dialogue scenes, though these are often brief and feature excellent character actors, reminding you that this is pure pulp and not Oscar bait.
The script is headlined by original writer Derek Kolstad with additions from Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams. Kolstad (and co) do a good job of showing the breadth of their invented mythology and universe, with more revealed as yet more is introduced without explanation (setting up sequels, including a confirmed TV show about the Continental hotel).
What’s a shame is that the grace of the first two parts – packaging exposition into little parcels with a great sense of humour – is lost by throwing said exposition into the overstuffed middle section, which slows the film right down after the incredible, madcap beginning. Thankfully the latter part slowly builds to a crescendo and a sequel baiting ending: but who doesn’t want more of this!
It helps that the world feels real and believable, like a seedy layer atop ours. Cinematographer Dan Laustse goes all in on dark blue NYC nights with rain, neon and harsh lights, before sandy, sunkissed Morocco and souks bring a bright new vista. The aforementioned dialogue scenes and action gift it an unworldly, noirish edge too.
This is particularly notable in ice cool confrontations in old and new, distinctive environs. Action and cinematography is aided by editor Evan Schiff, who wisely cuts very little amid the fight scenes in a rare example of a director, cinematographer and editor working in perfect tandem.
Tyler Bates’ score features more of that heavy guitar work from the other films, and this (and more orchestral elements) rises and falls in action sequences, sometimes disappearing completely. This is is quite impactful during the conclusion particularly. There’s less external music, but some classical pieces are used very effectively – and who’d have thought that genre would synchronise so well with Reeves shooting and stabbing his way around.
As a fan of these films you’re not going to be looking for top notch performances – it’s not about that! Reeves is however a force of nature, much like Tom Cruise throwing himself into everything and anything, while still doing his best in the scenes that require acting (particularly when John confronts his past or betrayals). As long as he continues to want to do these (and I think he does!), they benefit from his incredible efforts in the stunt and action, and he still maintains that air of unfussed cool.
Beyond Reeves, it’s a cavalcade of character actors, including the returning Ian McShane as hotel manager Winston. The actor known to many as Lovejoy is getting the most out of his time in Hollywood, showing off a smarmy British charm and sarcasm. He plays other, more dangerous characters against one another to try to stay on top, and I’d watch a show just about him (which I can only hope the Continental show will be).
Laurence Fishburne is hilariously odd as the unhinged tramp lord Bowery King, in which he goes all out, spitting out pulpy dialogue in mad raves. He’s clearly absolutely loving it, and I hope he’s in it for the long run because adds insanity to an already unstable mix. Lance Reddick’s stern, comedic hotel receptionist Charon also gets in on the action at last.
Halle Berry’s Sofia makes quite an impression in a short time, holding her own in a ridiculous set piece in Morocco. Hopefully she returns because it was nice having some female energy. A quick aside on the dogs – this film is fine for animal lovers, and in fact dogs and horses (!) get in on the act, Sofia’s two tearing people apart as part of the aforementioned nuts mid-film action scene.
Asia Kate Dillon’s clipped, glaring representative of the organisation bossing the assassins might have done more beyond glowering; while Anjelica Huston spreads Eastern European malevolence as The Director, linked with John’s past. Mark Damascos is brilliant as top assassin Zero, a ruthless killer with a fanboy love of John, his appearances adding welcome humour throughout their many confrontations.
Finally, apperances I hope are expanded in future include Jason Mantzoukas (he of manic, unhinged appearances in US comedies) as the homeless nutter Tick Tock Man; Said Taghmaoui as the mysterious, enigmatic Elder; Jerome Flynn (Game of Thrones’ Bronn) as a smarmy git (surprise) with a seriously dodgy European accent; and the awesomely talented Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman from The Raid films as Zero’s assassin students.
Chapter Three – Parabellum is not the best John Wick film, but it’s still absolutely miles beyond other action cinema. Only Mission: Impossible – Fallout can comfortably put itself above this for sheer adrenal thrill in the last year or so!