John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum loads up on too much of a good thing, writes MacDara Conroy
If there’s been a renaissance of the action film in recent years, then 2014’s John Wick is absolutely a part of it. The bare-bones tale of a retired hitman out for revenge, made by debutants (Chad Stalheski and an uncredited David Leitch) and with a lead (Keanu Reeves) whose lustre was decidedly dulled at the time, its success was no guarantee, but the ingredients are easy to trace in hindsight.
There’s the fact that its directors are experienced stunt co-ordinators, making natural the film’s reliance on old-school fight choreography that showcases breathtaking technical physicality over CGI smoothness. There’s the undeniable influence of a half century of action cinema in its lurid neo-noir melodramatic stylings.
And of course there’s the notion that it’s a film very aware of the parodic tendencies of its storyline (the titular hitman is motivated not by financial gain, or the assault of a loved one, but by the killing of his puppy) which succeeds via the contrast of playing it relatively straight, making the most of its star’s distinctive stoicism (or woodenness, were one to be less charitable).
John Wick: Chapter 2 followed in 2017, turning up every dial into the red, and this critic was impressed at the time. But as time has passed one can’t help but feel it made the misstep of matching its story’s ludicrous premise with a similarly outrageous aesthetic. That’s just perfect for, say, a Jason Statham movie (and I will go to bat for most of this oeuvre, no word of a lie) but in this case it all together misses the spirit, that certain something that made the original such a charmer.
And now we have the third instalment, promising ‘bigger’ in every way, from the mouthful of a title — John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum — to the running time (half an hour longer than the original) and an expanded cast sprinkled with higher-priced cameos. So it’s bigger, but is it better?
Chapter 2 ends as John Wick, having broken a golden rule of his assassin’s guild, is granted an hour’s head start before an open contract goes out on his head. And that’s how Chapter 3 begins, as he scrambles across a rain-sodden New York to prepare for his next move as a city full of guns (and knives, and fists) for hire mark their target. The setup promises one hell of a ride: the prospect of our John running the contract killer gauntlet. There are heart-pumping motorbike chases, there are shootouts on horseback. It’s quiet the buzz. But that’s not quite where it goes.
The problem, really, is that ‘John Wick’ is now a franchise, in the mainstream geek ‘cinematic universe’ sense, and so it must now carry the baggage of a convoluted backstory and unnecessarily detailed explanations for things. Enter the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), an enforcer-type character whose role is both to establish the Rules with a capital R through speech-dumps of exposition (while also being supposedly a send-up of such geek prerequisites) and to rearrange the playing pieces in this game of death (and get the filmmakers out of having to pay off that cliffhanger in any meaningful way).
Thus, our John is bounced from the immediate threat of New York (by way of Anjelica Houston’s plot convenience) to the backstreets of Casablanca, where he’s teamed up with Joan Wick… no, wait, that’s Sofia (Halle Berry) for a brief encounter, before he’s sent off into the desert for more mandatory-lore shenanigans and to set up the inevitable return to his old stomping grounds, and the arms of his old mates Winston (Ian McShane, a reliable constant in this series), Lance Reddick as the gatekeeper of the film’s sacred ground (and who apparently has a name but I’ll be damned if anyone could tell you), and Laurence Fishburne’s pigeon-fancying underworld kingpin.
Is there action along the way? Sure there is, heaps of it. It’s all professionally done, technically accomplished. Hats off to the stunt people. But there’s so little wit to it, so little imagination. Set-pieces drag on interminably, repeating the same basic sequences of moves over and over: a throw here, a headshot there, a dog chomping on a (probably ethnic) henchman’s nethers. All elicit the expected thrill at their first appearance; all grow weary by their seventh or eighth, or more. I lost count of the number of faceless villains (literally faceless, in most cases, with so many clad in motorcycle helmets) blasted in their most vulnerable spots with pistols or shotguns. John Wick is an on-rails shoot-‘em-up now.
There are moments of brilliance, mind. A shaven-headed Mark Dacascos channels Gordon Liu (of Shaw Brothers’ Shaolin movies fame) as the primary antagonist, a John Wick fanboy who can’t believe his luck that he gets to take on the man himself. And he’s accompanied by Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman in the series’ most direct nod to the influence of Gareth Evans’ The Raid — which arguably sparked this whole modern action movie deal as it put Indonesian martial arts on the map — and its sequel, which suffers in the same way this film does in loading up on too much of a good thing.
Long before Chapter 3’s narratively appropriate yet jarringly abrupt ending, the biggest question on this critic’s mind was whether movies like John Wick ever need sequels, whether they’re perfect as they are and we should leave well enough alone. I fully expect to be in the minority on this one, but disappointment cannot be denied.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum opens nationwide on Wednesday May 15th