There are a lot of big movies referenced in John Wick: Chapter 3 including The Raid, The Matrix, Casablanca and the entire filmography of Buster Keaton. Normally this would be a bold thing to do, only serving to highlight how poorly your film compares to such classics, but John Wick 3 gets away with it, not because it’s as good as everything it evokes, but because like those movies it is a brilliant example of its own genre. What the director and his crew are doing is stating up front that they know cinema; they know about the artistry of truly great fight scenes, they know what a good action flick looks like, they know what makes an espionage thriller work, they know about the importance of an actor’s physicality and they recognise a well executed stunt. They then take all of this knowledge and they channel it into an exhilarating film that is very impressive in its own right.
[For the record John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is better than The Raid but isn’t one of the films I can count on one hand that is better than Casablanca.]
I had mixed feelings about the first two John Wick movies. The first one I liked but it had a weak ending and the second one was okay but didn’t properly expand on the best parts of it predecessor. My reviews of both of those films ended with the suggestion that what the next one needed to do was find the tricky balance of adding more depth to the story without over complicating the effectively straight forward premise. I’m pleased to say that Parabellum finally delivers fully on the promise of what came before. The action and fight sequences which make up the bulk of the running time are spectacular, picking up on the close quarter style established in number one and taking it further. Keanu Reeves is a compelling protagonist, emotionally dialled down but physically ramped up to just the right measure, and he is surrounded by other people giving really strong character performances, most notably but not limited to Lance Reddick, Halle Berry and (finally providing the series with a great bad guy) Mark Dacascos. Parts of the film may not be particularly sophisticated; the disavowed hitman taking on all the hired killers out to get him plot is pretty simple, but the elements that are sophisticated are really really sophisticated.
[What is truly great about this film is the incredible fight choreography. Mention also needs to go to the lighting, framing and shot composition though because every frame of this movie looks amazing. The cinematography is done by Dan Laustsen who got an Oscar nomination for The Shape of Water last year and he does a brilliant job.]
To describe John Wick: Parabellum’s action scenes in detail would be a spoiler but would also be totally impossible to do in any way that would do them justice. I’ll just say the following words and if you’ve seen the film you’ll know where I’m coming from and once you’ve seen it you’ll understand: book, horse, knives, dogs, motorbikes. The section surrounding the last of these actually takes a lot from a lesser known film, The Villianess, but rather than the movie hoping you haven’t seen this little Korean flick I think it is being as up front about this influence as it is all the others. John Wick 3 may owe a debt to all sorts of other work but it is proud enough of what it is doing with those borrowed ideas to own up to everything. There isn’t much in movies that is truly original anymore but if you can build on the conventions then you are winning and John Wick 3 wins at this over and over again. I had a very entertaining two hours and if you can stomach a relentless punch up then this is where you need to be.
Is this one for the kids?
This is certainly not one for the kids, it is rated 15 and has some quite squirm inducing moments of violence at the beginning. What is interesting though is that as the body count goes up the explicit nature of the kills calms down. By midway through a huge amount of people are getting put down at an almighty rate but many of them remain faceless, wearing bike helmets, head scarfs or protective face guards. This is a contrast to the injury detail at the start and must be a conscious decision on the part of director Chad Stahelski to distance the audience from the amorality of what is going on. It works too, you are able to forget that these are people getting shot in the face and you are free to enjoy the dance.
The Ripley Factor:
As mentioned, this is a movie full of great little performances from many recognisable names and faces. Amoung them is a cool and sardonic turn from Asia Kate Dillon and a slightly cliched but entertaining appearance by Angelica Houston. Both of these play formidable and powerful women. Arguably the best actor here though is Halle Berry. In the risible Bond film Die Another Day, Berry was set up as a female version of and a match for 007, the established male lead. Frankly she was one of the few good things about that movie. Similarly here she is the feminist antidote to John Wick and unlike the time she played opposite Pierce Brosnan, she doesn’t have to take any of her clothes off.