Movie Review - John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum
By Matthew Huntley
May 29, 2019
The subtitle for “John Wick: Chapter 3” is “Parabellum” (which means “prepare for war”), but I think a more appropriate term is “Paradox.” Here is a wall-to-wall, non-stop actioner (just like its two predecessors) that’s so inventive, so technically sound, and so busting with confidence that it’s puzzling it also seems bloated, redundant, invasive, and, in some ways, deplorable. I watched it with bemusement, feeling both admiration and disdain for what transpired on-screen, and unfortunately, in the end, my contempt for it won out.
For the record, I didn’t expect any kind of meaningful story from this third installment of the slick, neo-noir series, which follows the stoic, monosyllabic John Wick (Keanu Reeves) as he traverses the world doing whatever he can to stay alive. The ex-assassin and widower, who simply wants to enjoy his retirement with his beloved pit bull, once again can’t catch a break. You’ll recall that at the end of the last film, Winston (Ian McShane), one of the leading members of the omnipotent yet mysterious High Table crime syndicate and John’s former employer, declared Wick an “excommunicado” and placed a $14 million bounty on his head.
Now, when “Chapter 3” opens, Wick is on the run through New York City and has just one hour before the bounty posts on the High Table’s message board and it’s open season on his life. As soon as he drops off his dog, picks up some pertinent belongings, and gets stitched up after a knife fight, the film quickly settles down into a series of grandiose chase sequences, shoot-outs and hand-to-hand combat scenes, and whether or not it was intentional, one can draw parallels between the movie’s plot and any number of role-playing video games (think “Super Mario Bros.”), in which the title character simples moves from one stage to the next, each with different enemies to escape and/or kill.
Comparing the film to a video game isn’t a knock on video games or on “John Wick: Chapter 3,” since the structure of a video game can sometimes make for exciting cinema. What is problematic about the film, however, is that each subsequent stage in which Wick finds himself gets progressively longer, duller and excessive with regard to its unabashed and, eventually, uninspired violence. It’s not a good thing when a movie is at its most stirring and entertaining during its first act, but that’s what happens with “Parabellum.” By the time it reaches its quarter mark—it runs for a too-long 131 minutes—it starts repeating itself and getting by on the fumes leftover from the beginning.
Consider the scene where I first suspected the film was taking a wrong turn. It takes place in Casablanca, where Wick has met up with Sofia (Halle Berry), an old contact who owes him a favor. He needs Sofia to use her connections to find The Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), whose authority supersedes the High Table and can therefore lift the bounty off his head.
After getting the information they need, Wick and Sofia are attacked by a gang of hooded men and use their guns and Sofia’s beloved, ferocious dogs to fend them off. To be sure, the Foley sounds, choreography and visual effects of this sequence—just like those we heard and saw in earlier, equally energetic fight scenes that took place in, among other locations, the New York City Public Library; a warehouse stocked with knives and swords; and a horse stable—bring the action to palpable life. But the Casablanca scene was also the point when I sensed the filmmakers might be overly smitten with their own resources and talents because they let the action go on for too long, and soon enough, “Parabellum” started to outwear its welcome. I imagine the film’s otherwise talented editor, Evan Schiff, reviewed all the footage he had at his disposal and was unable to make a decision about what to leave in or out and simply decided to include everything. But it’s too much, and after a while, we grow both numb and turned off by the incessant point-blank shootings to nameless heads and dogs mauling men by ripping apart their limbs and genitals.
What’s troubling about the film’s extreme violence is it’s supposed to be entertaining, even funny, and there are times when such violence can be, but only up to a certain point. Director Chad Stahelski, a former stunt performer and coordinator, certainly knows how to stage and execute action, as he proved with the first two films, but he unfortunately takes things too far with the mayhem this time around. After a while, all the flippant killings becomes unwarranted, meaningless and exhausting. It’s nothing new to say Hollywood action movies glorify violence, but there’s a difference between glorified violence that’s artistically-driven and/or the product of great craftsmanship and glorified violence that’s merely gratuitous. The violence in “John Wick: Chapter 3” starts out innovative and exciting but descends into baseless overkill (pun intended).
By the time the big climax arrives, during which Wick must defend himself alongside Charon (Lance Reddick), his concierge friend at the “de-consecrated” Continental Hotel owned by Winston, I was all but checked out of both the film’s thin storyline and its glossy presentation. The final scenes when Wick must take out a whole S.W.A.T. team sent by the High Table and then engage in a knife fight with the envious Zero (Mark Dacascos), a fellow assassin who really just wants to be Wick’s friend and earn his respect, started to blend together. How many times must we see Wick get kicked through a glass wall, only to walk away completely unscathed and not even bleed? It all proved too draining, incredulous (even for the incredible world the film creates) and, frankly, boring.
This isn’t to say there aren’t some nice, quiet, character-driven touches here and there. Anjelica Huston, Laurence Fishburne and Jerome Flynn each play various characters with whom Wick makes contact and conducts business, and their presence added some depth and class to the story. And Reeves and Dacascos share two wry scenes together that I was hoping would get the long-suffering Wick to at least smile or show some signs he could still experience pleasure, but it wasn’t meant to be. He remained stern and aloof, which is a shame because such traits don’t make him all that interesting of a character.
Then again, these movies have never really about the characters. They’re about the action, and if it’s shootings and beatings you crave, then “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum” certainly gives you your money’s worth. But be forewarned that what it delivers in violence and devastation may cost you in time and frustration, because it’s likely you’ll find, just as I did, the film starts to go around in circles too early into its run. And in so doing, it digs itself into a hole where the characters get stripped of credibility, humanity and remorse. As technically proficient as the filmmakers are, the overall experience they create left a bad taste in my mouth because I got the impression they think surfeit violence is synonymous with effective violence, and I’d hate to see this kind of attitude become a new standard. Violence in movies will always exist, but it has to serve a purpose and it’s often best delivered in small doses. The makers of “John Wick: Chapter 3” don’t seem to agree, but I hope they come around with “Chapter 4.”