The John Wick series eludes criticism. Kind of. It is a series of films that knows its audience and knows itself. As such, a formal critique feels unnecessary. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a film that caters to the fans of the previous two films. If you’re not already in on these films, then this film won’t change your mind. If you’re in, then you know who you are and you’re already prepared to see Parabellum. My job is done for me, it seems.
All the same, there are highs and lows in Parabellum that I think are worth discussing.
The stunt extravaganza action films starring Keanu Reeves as the eponymous assassin are exceedingly simple formula pictures. The premises of the films could be given in a single sentence, but the mythology of the John Wick world is too cryptic to explain thoroughly in a concise paragraph.
The extent of the world building is this mysterious “High Table” world of assassin fealty, in which new characters are introduced throughout the film and drop a line or two about the “rules” of the assassin world. In chapter three, these characters include an “adjudicator” (Asia Kate Dillon), who comes into situations with orders and punishments from the High Table, and a man who is, so we’re told, above the power of the High Table.
These characters complicate the lore of the John Wick-iverse, but the films themselves could not have a more simple hook. It is as simple as: Don’t cross John Wick. In Parabellum, the one-man murder machine is planted in various locales and tasked with saving his own skin against hundreds of cold-blooded killers. This is because Wick has been deemed “ex-communicado” by the High Table, putting a $14 million dollar bounty on his head. It is essentially high class mob politics: someone did a social wrong in the hierarchy of this organization and must be punished for it.
As Wick lays waste to assassins across the city, the adjudicator is paying visits to those people that helped Wick after he was disowned by the organization. They represent various factions in this assassin world, and, as the title of the film suggests, the High Table’s attempts to dole out punishment is causing political shifts that are leading to unrest.
John Wick 3 provides audiences the exact thing it sets out to do. It continues expanding the world, and, in doing so, it amplifies the stakes and inflates the action set pieces. The film begins with a flurry of scenes involving Wick hurrying to get a series of tasks done before the “ex communicado” goes into effect. The thrumming score and impending deadline immediately introduce intensity and stakes (the sequence is proof that all you need is a tight deadline in order to intensify an action scene).
As the film barrels forward, there is about an hour of non-stop, thrilling action. Wick flips, kicks, chops, rocks, shoots, stabs, cracks, snaps, etc. And, for a long stretch of the film, the nearly constant action does not waver in its freshness and exhilaration.
It is when the film begins pausing for plot purposes that the pacing slows, and this occurs more and more frequently as we head into the final act. The first act of the film is, more or less, 99% pure visual storytelling. We watch as Wick moves from location to location for very specific reasons, and it is all telegraphed to the audience through the visual geography of the scenes.
When the adjudicator is introduced, there are plenty of semi-expository scenes that help build up the lore of the High Table and these factions of assassins. This world-building is intriguing, and the concepts of fealty and punishment and service are fascinating if you are invested in this mythology. But after a number of scenes that serve this function, it starts halting the film in its tracks.
What is more detrimental to the pacing (and, frankly, the pacing is the keystone of the film’s success, given its simple premise and 130 minute runtime) is the stretch of the film involving Halle Berry’s Sofia. Perhaps this is merely a consequence of the extended cameo appearing near the middle of the film, where the repetitiveness of the action sequences are destined to become the most sticky. Berry herself gets a fair amount to do, which is refreshing after seeing the pitiful role she was given in Kingsman: The Golden Circle.
But the action sequences involved in this stretch of the film are the most monotonous. They feel long and they sag with a lack of diversity in stunt choices. The bulk of this action plays almost like a side-scroller video game, with characters shooting people along a path. The only break from gun-play is a pair of dogs repeatedly gnawing on assailants’ crotches. The end result of this action is also the least consequential, as it introduces a character that only serves the function of being a middle-man on the path to a character with actual importance.
Aside from its middle act problems, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum provides the same bombastic, high body count action that the previous films did. If anything, its pursuit of almost non-stop action gives it a leg-up on the second chapter, whose world-building made the pacing even more stop-start than what we see here.
Where it leaves us at the end of the film—and I’ll be as vague as possible—is somewhat of a letdown, as it sequel baits for a film in a way that is more or less identical to the last sequel baiting ending. The ending of chapter two presented a scenario that promised to be, seemingly, the highest stakes possible for the character of John Wick. In the case of chapter three, the pressure on Wick’s shoulders is somewhat alleviated. The stakes are on the larger, mythic, and mostly unseen hierarchy of organized assassination. And, because these forces are less tangible, it feels less climactic.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: B
The Post Script
Going back and checking my review of John Wick: Chapter Two, I was surprised to see that I gave it a hefty A- rating. While I feel I must have been riding a high that was unwarranted, and that in actuality I think that film rides closer to the B/B- category, these films do cater to a specific audience. And this audience is likely to find that Chapter Two and Parabellum expand on the world of John Wick in a such a way that an A- rating is deserved.
But to clear up any confusion, my knee-jerk reaction to Parabellum is that it is a superior movie to Chapter Two in spite of the lower rating.
As always, thanks for reading!
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)