John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is true to its promise
Even compared to the first two entries in this franchise, the awkwardly named John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is the most violent mainstream film I have seen since Kill Bill Vol. 1. It’s the closest American cinema has gotten to The Raid films, and I rejoice at that. Wick 3 revels in its violence, lets you feel it and slows down for it to heighten the audience reaction. The action isn’t as clean as the first two films, yet this feels like a victory lap for franchise helmer Chad Stahelski, indulging in guns, knives, and other martial arts implements over the course of the film. The action is, of course, incredible, and this entry feels like it has twice as many jokes as the previous entries put together. And some very cute references to The Matrix on its 20th anniversary.
The variety and visceral nature of the film isn’t for everyone, but with the right crowd and mindset, it is a rapturous experience. If you’re the kind of person who can cheer when a knife toss is expertly executed, Chapter 3 should not be missed. There’s even a sequence featuring dogs that made me long for an R-rated Jurassic World movie. This is also the series at its most outlandish. The first film feels relatively grounded, while Chapter 2 led us deeper into the world of the High Table, The Continental, and the power of giving your word. Parabellum digs deeper into this economy of contract kills and favors, pitching darker, and greater, desperation the more layers are revealed.
As is befitting a third entry, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is put in his most desperate situation yet, picking up with him being declared excommunicado at the end of the previous film. Consequences also come for Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the New York Continental, as well as The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), in the form of The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). Dillon’s performance is one of the highlights of the film, as their performance brings a very similar energy as Bebe Neuwirth’s Lilith Sternin from Cheers and Frasier, and exudes a similar sort of power in every scene that she appears. Also introduced is Sofia (Halle Berry), the manager of the Continental Casablanca.
One thing that Parabellum answers is something I asked in my review of John Wick: Chapter 2:
But Wick's descent back into the world he left behind in this film reveals him to be a broken husk, not unfeeling, but so unconcerned with life it is difficult to imagine why he fights so hard to continue to stay alive.
The answer may not feel entirely satisfactory, but it shows Derek Kolstad and the other writers are still attempting to move Wick’s character forward. There might be only lip service to character in this film, but there’s heavy thematics surrounding the bacchanalia of violence.
The first is animals. Yes, the films in the series so far have predicated on the bond between man and dog, but more interesting is the repeated phrasing that the Rules of this world are what separate man from animal. The assassins have rules, civilization. Yet Chapter 3 features many animals, horses, camels, and dogs specifically. Each of these animals has been domesticated, which means they have been integrated into society, and thus bound by its rules. Horses and dogs are used both by police and by the assassins in this film as tools of violence and intimidation. The parallels run deep here between an animal which has been genetically bred by humans to live by a set of Rules and the world of these assassins. After all, a dog that is not well trained may still bite. One of the most obvious jokes in the film is Sofia giving the “sit” command, and implying that she meant Wick and not her dogs.
The story of the John Wick films, then, seems to be the journey of Wick not only back from the land of death to that of the living, but from animal to man. As much as we can bond with our pets and animal companions, those relationships are different from those we have with other humans. There are limits to how much an animal can express love back to you. There’s a limit to how much of a personal life a killer can have, which is something that also surfaces with Sofia in this film. It’s a fascinating parallel, and underlines the idea of consequences and rule-breaking even more.
The other major theme that feels unique to Chapter 3 is economics. At one point, we meet Berrada (Jerome Flynn), maker of the coins that everyone seems to love to slide across tables in this world (seriously, the sound design in his movie is sublime). He monologues about the nature of an economy based on favors, respect, and gift-giving. But while at first it may seem like a unique twist on a barter economy, it is simply capitalism with a different means of value, like a private economy behind a garden gate. Ultimately, these people are all killers for money.
Critics of capitalism will say that our economic system is predicated on violence, and John Wick: Chapter 3 nods to this idea in its imagery. One of the most spectacular sets used in the film is a few floors of the Continental made entirely from glass. It functions similar to the mirrors exhibit from the climax of the previous film, but with an added twist: the barriers are invisible, and exposed to the outside world. In a key moment from the film, Wick and another assassin (Mark Dacascos) are fighting, backlit by giant LED billboards advertising luxury watches. It’s a stark reminder that these contract killers are fighting in a world governed by capital and the wealthy as much as it is pure survival. Ultimately, that’s what all this fighting and death adds up to, a nicer watch.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum opens in Philly theaters today.