Review: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)


John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is a case of diminishing returns, where the exceptional action is still present, but less impressive than it was the last two times around. This is understandable. Familiarity reduces novelty, and watching Keanu Reeves’ super assassin, John Wick, dispatch dozens of henchmen with headshots is not as exhilarating as it once was. But it’s still entertaining, and, purely as a showcase of action choreography and stuntwork, John Wick: Chapter 3 remains exceptional.

Picking up immediately where John Wick: Chapter 2 left off, John Wick: Chapter 3 finds Reeves’ assassin facing excommunication from the underground world he inhabits. He desperately flees through the streets of New York City in an attempt to find safety and stave off the waves of assassins eager to claim the $14 million bounty on his head. His attempts to save his life take him to Casablanca and then eventually back to The Continental in New York, the swank hotel that doubles as the epicentre of assassin life in the franchise.

Much like Chapter 2, Chapter 3 simultaneously deepens the storyworld and fleshes out elements of John Wick’s past, while maintaining the veneer of mystery that makes him alluring. For instance, an encounter with Anjelica Huston’s Director, a Belarussian mobster that runs a ballet company, hints that Wick was an orphan raised within the company, explaining both his familiarity with Slavic languages and his balletic movements during fight scenes. But the sequences never out-and-out explain the connections, and there’s not nearly as much time spent on exposition here as there was in Chapter 2. Chapter 3 simply adds more pieces to the puzzle, expanding the world, but not explaining it.

Most of the focus is on the action, which remains the series’ calling card. Much has been made of director Chad Stahelski’s prior career as a stuntman (he was Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix sequels), which is essential to his understanding of action choreography and the visual appeal of fight sequences that show the effort of the combatants on screen. Viewers know that movie fights are staged, but the more work you put into showing the physical toll of the fight through blood and exhaustion, the more realistic it becomes and more impactful. But Stahelski is also a savvy filmmaker with a keen eye for roving camerawork. He often positions the camera at an extremely low angle behind Reeves, with Reeves in the dead-centre of the frame. This gives us as wide a view of the obstacles in Wick’s path as possible, while also subtly aligning the viewer with Wick. But he also knows when not to cut. Cutting too often would mask the physical toll of the choreography and undermine the psychological effect, so instead Stahelski lets scenes play out, often with no music.

An early fight between Wick and a hulking assassin played by 7-foot-3 NBA player Boban Marjanovic is a standout for the smart visual approach to action. Marjanovic holds Reeves back with his immense reach and Stahelski establishes the size difference with low-angle wide shots that make Marjanovic seem even larger than he is. But at a key moment, he goes to a close-up and rises over Marjanovic’s shoulder to look down at Reeves from Marjanovic’s eye level. The simple shot construction perfectly conveys Wick’s tall task at hand. The brutal fight scene that follows can then play out with the stakes perfectly conveyed through these simple shots. Wick’s use of a thick book to dispatch his adversary is only icing on the cake for the disturbing physicality of the sequence.

This filmmaking approach isn’t new to Chapter 3. Both of the previous films excelled in action choreography. Chapter 3 only finds new ways to have John Wick dispatch enemies. A sequence involving a horse is a highlight, as is a showdown with two henchmen played by The Raid’s Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman, which finally makes the inevitable connection between the John Wick series and The Raid series. But the repetitive storytelling does grow tiring over the film’s excessive 130-minute runtime. The original John Wick was only 101 minutes. It’s the perfect length to sustain the brutalizing action, as there are only so many ways to have John Wick narrowly fend off fatal assassins without your mind starting to check out.

At least the increased reliance on humour is a welcome growth in the filmmaking approach. There’s always been something on the edge of camp about John Wick as a character. The original film’s core premise, of a sad sack former assassin getting revenge on the gangsters that killed his puppy, is almost satire in its meta-construction. So it’s only natural for the sequels to draw out the humour in the premise, especially with regards to Wick’s staggering ability to take a beating and still fight. Much of the humour comes from the primary antagonist, played by Iron Chef America’s Mark Dacascos, who is a fanboy of John Wick in the film, as well as an agile assassin. His naked admiration for John Wick’s skills makes him almost something of an audience surrogate, even as he tries to kill Wick to prove his own worth.

If you appreciate John Wick: Chapter 2, you’ll like John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. It’s at least as well-made as its predecessor. But such a brute force approach to action filmmaking can grow tedious if it’s too much too soon. I worry that the franchise will suffer something similar to what happened to The Raid series in The Raid 2, where the fights remained exceptional, but the story ballooned out to operatic melodrama that the fighting couldn’t justify.

The ending of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum promises a Chapter 4. I’ll be there to watch it. I just hope that it’s a bit leaner and a bit more novel. I’ll always appreciate great action scenes in American action films, as they remain a rarity, but sometimes you can get too much of a good thing.

7 out of 10

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019, USA)

Directed by Chad Stahelski; written by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams, based on a story and characters created by Kolstad; starring Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, with Anjelica Huston and Ian McShane.