It was John Wick 3 (or the lengthier, sillier John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum) that finally slew Avengers: Endgame; the assassin-centric action film overcame the Marvel juggernaut in its fourth week to top the box office. Though they’re thematically and stylistically disparate, both films have and will be discussed in terms of their action sequences, and it’s there that they make such compelling counterpoints. Despite its many strengths, Endgame loses its momentum when it switches into action mode. It becomes a display of overly-choreographed and unoriginal fights that are the only truly boring part of the three-hour film. Parabellum, on the other hand, offers a way forward that seamlessly incorporates action sequences into its narrative. Like the earlier films in the series, the action exists not just to titillate, but also to expand our understanding of Keanu Reeves’ eponymous character. It’s amazing that the third film in a sequel could be operating this smoothly and inventively.
Parabellum begins only minutes after the conclusion of the second film (and the three films only seem to span about a week or so), as Wick races through the streets of New York with less than an hour left before he becomes “excommunicado” — meaning other colleagues won’t be allowed to offer him assistance, and a $14 million bounty will be placed on his head by the High Table, a ruling group of assassins. And they’re serious about it. A doctor to the assassin world helps stitch up one of Wick’s many wounds, but he stops mid-job as the hour ends, leaving Wick to finish suturing himself. Once he’s finished, the doctor forces Wick to shoot him twice, fearing no one would believe he stopped offering assistance right on the hour.
Wick is professionally afloat once he’s excommunicated, so he seeks out the few people who owe him something, including a ballet instructor/leader of a Russian crime family (played by Anjelica Huston), and a quite compelling Halle Berry as Sofia, a former assassin who now runs one of the Continental hotels in Casablanca. Sofia is the closest thing the film has to a supporting role that’s not just a cameo, and Berry has some whip-smart repartee with Reeves, as well as equally compelling action work.
While Wick is seeking out allies, his former friends have been given ultimatums by an adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) for the High Table. To Winston (Ian McShane), the owner of the Continental hotel and Wick’s friend, they offer seven days to get his affairs in order before he’ll be killed. As he contemplates vengeance against the High Table, Wick mulls aligning himself with the shadowy group, which wants him to murder Winston.
Amid these developments come wave after wave of assassins looking to be the person who finally kills Wick and earns the multi-million dollar bounty. Parabellum’s director, Chad Stahelski, was a stuntman before trying his hand at directing, and he previously worked with Reeves as his stunt double in The Matrix. Stahelski understands the behind-the-scenes intricacies of sparring on film, and he puts that knowledge on full display. Rather than the fast cuts that made battle scenes in Avengers: Endgame unintelligible, Stahelski and his editor, Evan Schiff, favor unusually longs takes by modern standards. The continuous footage allows the audience to experience the fight organically, rather than as a series of attacks that can be assembled willy-nilly. When Wick brutally kills another assassin with a dusty library book, the relatively sparse cutting makes the act all the more amazing. But the scene also reveals aspects of Wick’s character we haven’t seen before, such as his devotion to literature — exemplified not just by the use of a book as a deadly weapon, but also in the way he gently replaces it once he’s dispatched the assassin.
‘Parabellum’ remains an improbably good (and fun) entry in the series.
In addition to valuing space in his action scenes, Stahelski also understands the importance of taking a break. Multiple times during the climactic battle, Wick and his allies stop fighting in order to nonchalantly walk back to a vault full of guns, chatting while they restock. It’s one of the more ridiculous parts of a ridiculous film (Are the bad guys just sitting on their hands until they get back?), but it plays as fun and refreshing, as if the conversation that Vincent and Jules have at the beginning of Pulp Fiction had taken place in the midst of the briefcase confrontation rather than beforehand.
Reeves helps pull off the film’s more outrageous moments thanks to his wry humor and dead-eyed delivery. Is he a good actor? No, not really, but he’s the right actor. His lack of emotion works well for a killer who can turn them off at will in order to do his job. But there are still a few moments of tenderness, such as when Wick pleads for help so that he can survive — not because he doesn’t want to die, but because he wants to be alive to remember his dead wife. If anything, it makes the series’ disinterest in exploring what Wick’s marriage was like before his wife died seem more unwise. Reeves’ steely concentration and dead eyes tend to make him seem cold and sexless, and exploring that aspect of Wick’s past life might help the character.
Perhaps a future sequel will bust into that territory, though it seems unlikely. John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum is an improvement over the lackluster John Wick 2, but it also turns up the volume on every aspect of the previous films. It’s about as amped up as the film can be without imploding, and it seems unlikely that future sequels will be able to maintain the energy. Until then, Parabellum remains an improbably good (and fun) entry in the series.