Written By: Daniel Kinsley
In lesser hands, it is easy to imagine the John Wick series relegated to DTV roll-outs, populated by a less well-known (but no less badass) star like Scott Adkins. The original Wick (2014) was a rare B-movie hit with crossover appeal; independently financed and co-directed by two stunt-men turned first-time directors, its worldwide gross doubled the original budget, and was well-received by critics and audiences alike. In many ways, it was a perfect vehicle for its star, Keanu Reeves, who remains one of our most enduring and enigmatic action stars. Though Reeves spent much of the aughts working in smaller films (he has only worked with a major studio twice since completing The Matrix trilogy) John Wick marked a comeback of sorts, one that seems to show no signs of stopping; John Wick 2 (2017) upped the ante by expanding the mythology of the universe, and ratcheting up the action (and the head shots!) even more. With its latest chapter, John Wick 3: Parabellum (2019) remains as thrilling and packed with top-tier fight choreography as the first two films, even if the seams in the story have begun to show.
The film picks up only moments after Chapter 2, with a weary John and his trusted pitbull racing through the streets of NYC. After killing a man on the grounds of the assassin hotel The Continental, John has been declared “excommunicado” and a $14 million bounty has been placed on his head. Given an hour head-start by Winston (Ian McShane) the Continental’s Manager, John must prepare for war as the clock ticks down, when he will be officially deprived of any assistance or services from the franchise’s criminal underworld. In order to survive, John must gain an audience with The Elder (Said Taghmaou) who is the only man that can reverse John’s excommunicado. In order to reach him, John must fight his way across the city to enlist reluctant assistance of figures from his past like The Director (Anjelica Huston) and Sofia (Halle Berry). Writer Derek Kolstad * and director Chad Stahelski ** deserve a lot of credit for continuing to build such a rich world, however, at times the reveal that there are yet more layers can feel more like bloat than cause for excitement. That being said, the narrative is the least compelling thing about this series which exists almost exclusively as an engine for John/Keanu to do what he does best.
The first third of the film, as John kills his way across New York, is arguably the most impressive as it moves from one unique set piece to another; John delivering head-shots while on horseback, doing battle with a gang of motorcyclists, and a vicious hand-to-hand bone cruncher in the New York Public Library. While it sets a strong tone, it is one that the film’s action scenes unfortunately struggle to maintain for its entire two-hour runtime. At times, the gun-fu can become a bit monotonous; as John mows down faceless hordes, the action remains cool, but at times feels too much like a video game. Fortunately, Stahelski’s stunt background and Reeves extensive background in martial arts ensure that the fight choreography remains top-tier. With the addition of Indonesian martial-art titans like Yayan Ruhian and Reeves’ personal instructor (and badass in his own right) Tiger Chen, Parabellum ensures that this franchise remains the most credible American action series when it comes to hand to hand combat. *** If there is any real complaint about the action, it is that many of the set pieces seem to be constructed around the idea that they look cool (and in all fairness, they are pretty damn cool) rather than to advance the narrative in any real way. It is a minor quibble, to be sure, but it is one of the things that keeps this sequel from rising above its B-movie influences.
While all of these things help, the film (and the series) hinges on Reeves, and he does not fail to deliver. Few action heroes have the real training or stamina to perform the way Reeves does, either with gun-play or hand-to-hand, and it is a testament to his commitment that the character (and by extension, the action) works so well. The rest of the cast remains a murderer’s row, made up by the likes of Laurence Fishburne and Lance Reddick returning (along with the aforementioned Ian McShane) while newcomers Mark Dacascos and Asia Kate Dillon fit in seamlessly, creating fun, memorable foils for John to match up against.
After three films of John trying to escape the life of an assassin, the story has by necessity had to expand in ways both organic, and not. While this writer suspects most viewers will come looking only for the action (and will leave fat and happy) the seams are beginning to show, as one wonders how much longer even the unstoppable John Wick can go on before his past catches up to him. **** Undoubtedly, the character has taken on a life its creators could not have anticipated back in ’14, and while the returns may be slightly diminishing, who can say no when it remains this much fun?
* While Kolstad did not work alone on the script for Parabellum, John Wick remains his creation.
** Fun fact: Stahelski has been Reeves’ stunt double since The Matrix (1999).
*** John Wick has a ways to go before it can claim the Greatest American Action Franchise as that honor still goes to the Mission Impossible series.
**** A fourth entry has been announced for 2021.