AUTHOR’S NOTE: This article was originally published on the Cinematic Katzenjammer in March, 2019.
“Consequences,” a character says to another.
“Consequences,” the second character replies.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum feels like one gigantic set of consequences for the series, in spite of the fact that very little of it is truly explained. This is not just because characters are saying the word. When they say it, they are conveying their mutual understanding that even with all that has transpired, they remain bound by the rules of the order and accountable for the rules they broke. After all, without the rules, they’d be no different from animals. And I need only tune into National Geographic if all I want is to see animals killing each other.
So tailor your suit, load your guns, and then put all that away because that’s not the proper attire for the cinema, where you can go to see a real professional do all that, and cheer him on with a bloodthirsty crowd. By “real professional,” I don’t just mean the character Jonathan. I also mean his actor and director, both of whom have delivered maybe the best, most phenomenally paced, pure noir action blockbuster of the decade. Yes – the decade. The same decade that saw Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, Furious 6, The Raid, and, of course, the original John Wick. Keanu Reeves doesn’t just float alongside the best of them. He might be the best of them all.
Keanu Reeves has always been misunderstood as an actor. If you’re looking for someone to show twenty different emotions in the same monologue, that’s not him. But that’s also not really acting, or at least not the extent of it. Reeves is a silent-movie actor who just happens to have come into cinema a century too late, but also too modern to blend into a historical piece. He speaks in a manner that ranges roughly between dopey and deadpan, and he owns nearly every aspect of the physicality. Not just with the stunts, but also with the elemental emotions. His movies never require a Fantine-type crybaby scene where he has to drown his eyeballs in front of you to make sure you know he’s sad. He just knows how to do regular things while being sad.
There is something about Reeves and his presence on screen that simply invites you to trust him. It’s an earnest quality Paul Newman, Monty Clift, and even young John Wayne had in the best of their movies. Watching him makes you realize how many actors are just relying on cinematography, lighting, color, and music to do the emotions of a scene for them instead of playing their part. His strengths don’t center around mere conveyance of plot dialogue for linear story function. Reeves provides an actual experience through his depth.
This is what makes the original John Wick such a transcendent work of art. We aren’t convinced of his character’s unstoppability just because other people keep saying it. It’s Keanu Reeves who convinces us of it because of the sadness in his movements as he buries Daisy, the intensity with which he swings the hammer down on the cement floor – all while his and the puppy’s blood are fresh upon his shirt. From there every kill expresses his grief. The film is of a singular motive, where personal vengeance and lawful retribution are on the same side of the gun. There is beauty to it, and Reeves gave it its life.
So after all that, plus a well-broadened legal and geographic scope for the assassin’s order given in John Wick: Chapter 2, which ended with him going on the run from seemingly the entire world for breaking a sacred cardinal rule, you’d have to wonder what this movie could add to it all. The first is stronger stakes. The standout plot change is the introduction of an icy adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). Though John is now “excommunicado,” not all is well in the order. Those who abetted or enabled his rule breaking – Winston (Ian McShane) and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) – are also to face consequences from the High Table. It’s not enough for John to escape. If he’s to live, it must be worth the order’s blessing, which requires soliciting other allies who also cannot afford to cross the Table, as well as confronting an authority figure above it. His efforts to do so take him to Casablanca and beyond, and also partner him up with Sofia (Halle Berry), a fellow assassin with the resources to get him there.
The second is expert blade work and variety. Previous films had knives, but Wick’s most effective melee weapon was the pencil. Parabellum doesn’t repeat that glory, but it incorporates more knives, swords, hatchets, and also teeth, making the fight even closer than it had been before. But fret not, for there are guns aplenty too. Every action sequence uses its own tools and equipment, whether he’s chased through the streets or conquering a compound. And although every kill isn’t poetry like it was in the first, there is a stronger visceral impact to all of them. The movie is two hours long, but by the end I was ready to watch four hours more. I can’t even say that about the original.
So of course, the third is pacing. Parabellum has by far the best pacing of any John Wick film, and some of the best I’ve seen in any action movie. Since this is a spoiler-free review, I’m only going to talk about the first. Picking up less than an hour after Chapter 2, John and his puppy are racing through the streets with a ticking clock. There will be a $14 million open contract on his head as soon as his hour is up, and every assassin is counting down the seconds just like him. It’s a riveting opener, but the best part is that the moment his time is up, the movie keeps building.
But this also leads to the only real criticism I have of the film (I’m not going to talk about an editing flop beyond mentioning its existence in a parenthetical). Once the killing starts, but before his escape from New York, his open contract increases from $14 million to $15 million as a way of ramping the stakes up further. What? A 7% increase is going to make a marginal difference after all that? Is there a tax break that starts at $15 million? Is there a popular item that opens its bid at $15 million? How is that supposed to make me worry for him?
Suspense and intrigue are always kept alive by the sparse inclusion of other players. The centerpiece is John and always will be. No one else is made the crutch of the film – i.e. the thing that has to be interesting because you’ve run out of ideas. The world just keeps building in increments of personality. And while the action never lets up, at no point will you yourself feel like an indulgent animal for having enjoyed it. This murder series is, after all, about civilized morality and the servant’s duties to it.
It’s an accomplishment on its own for the third entry in an action series to not feel like “John Wick: Another One.” But the reason this gets four stars is because Parabellum is not just a great and near-perfect little chapter in its own right. It, like the original John Wick, represents a benevolence to action and astonishment, and makes for one of the purest artistic expressions we have ever seen from one of North America’s greatest on-screen performers.
What a privilege it is to watch Keanu Reeves paint the landscape of noir cinema red with this character.
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