REVIEW: ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ is an Action Masterpiece

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John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

When it comes to John Wick: Chapter 3, directed by former stuntman Chad Stahelski, the story is simple. After the events of John Wick: Chapter 2, where John Wick chose to go against the rules of the Continental and gun down a member of the High Table, he finds himself excommunicado. Unable to use any of the dark assassins’ organizations protective services, John finds himself with an hour to prepare as the not-so-underground world of killers comes for him to collect the $14 million bounty on his head. When his hour is up, John must survive as he fights through the streets of New York and Morocco.

As a film John Wick: Chapter 3 seems like its action first, with little dialogue and every action sequence taken to truly epic scale and lasting for minutes. That being said, as John navigates his way through a world out to kill him, the writing team behind the film which includes creator Derek Kolstad along with screenplay credits for Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams, was able to put together a large world that used visuals to tell a story and leaned out of traditional exposition.

Throughout the film, with each encounter, we learn more about the world that the High Table oversees, each connection a network that can lead to the next possible sanctuary and every action of John’s past is leveraged to ensure his future.

From a world-building perspective, John Wick; Chapter 3 is some of the best that I have seen. As we travel with John in an attempt to find safety we don’t just see stunning action sequences, we also learn about the deep respect between assassins, the deeper rules of their world, the justice system of the High Table, and ultimately get a glimpse of the woman who made John who is today, the Baba Yaga.

The film also bolsters a packed cast with acting greats and martial arts legends alike. With Lance Reddick, Laurence Fishburne, and Ian McShane reprising their roles as prominent figures who face the consequences for John’s friendship and introducing Anjelica Huston and Asia Kate Dillon to the franchise, when dialogue is delivered in the film, it’s delivered by actors who know how to put weight behind the script. Then, there are the actors who not only act but deliver powerful action performances like Halle Berry and martial arts 1990s action flick legend Mark Dacascos.

Berry plays Sofia, an old friend of John’s and one of the last people in the international assassin world who must abide by her honor to help him. Dacascos, who plays Zero, the leader of a smallish group of assassins that have taken up the task to kill John. Both Berry and Dacascos embody characters that pull something out of the audience.

While Berry’s connection to the audience is formed through her connection with her two Belgian Malinois as they fight alongside each other, Dacascos’s connection to us is through watching John Wick since he loves John Wick as much as the audience. The best choice of the film was choosing Berry and Dacascos as the two actors that seemingly get the most screen time with Reeves.

In Berry’s action sequence, fight scene seems like to small a phrase to describe the visual smorgasbord that happens when Sofia decides to burn the world she’s in for her dog, something that John obviously understands. As the two attempt to make their way to the Elder, the man with a seat at the High Table, they, of course, find themselves in a knock-out drag-out fight as two versus many in the middle of a courtyard.

The fight choreography in this sequence is breathtaking. Not only because of the ability of the actors to perform the majority of their own stunts, but because of Stahelski’s ability to direct a scene that involves gun-fu, dog-fu, and creative kills, while mirroring John’s fighting style in Sofia.

While Reeves is known for doing almost all of his own stunt work, Berry rose to the task, performing the lion’s share of hers as well. As the two fight together utilizing physical combat and gunplay, Sofia’s command of the dogs in the scene solidifies the beauty of the choreography and brutality of the kills.

As we shift from Sofia to Zero, we get yet another fantastic sequence. As John ascends the all-glass room he fights his way through Zero’s men, one of which is Yayan Ruhian, fight choreographer and actor known for his work on the Indonesian film The Raid which quickly became a martial arts classic. The use of ascension in action films, specifically Asian action films builds the tension and stakes for the fight as the hero clears each level like you would in a video game with each challenger becoming more and more difficult. Although this is done on a smaller scale in John Wick 3 the effect is the same.

As Zero, Dacascos plays a talented and brutal assassin. In his first scene, he slices through Russian gangsters with ease when he comes to meet John. That brutality is replaced with a cherubic admiration of the assassin he has ruthlessly been trying to kill. While this is humorous, it doesn’t undercut the brutality and instead serves as a frame of reference for the world under the High Table, everyone knows of each other and in some cases respects each other.

In the final fight between Zero and John, we see Dacascos flex his ability to not only use his body but also his ability to hypnotically wield a short sword. Surrounded by lighted glass, Zero’s mastery of disappearing also comes into play, disorienting John and when the two meet body to body the sequence sits with you when the credits roll.

Masterpieces of cinema are films that show a history of where they came from and use the foundation of the greats before it to create something unique. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum does just that. The film takes the atmosphere of westerns, the physical humor 1980s Hong Kong action films, and the brutality of South Korean revenge fantasy cinema. This is something that the John Wick series has continually done since it began in 2014, but in this third chapter, the homage is used to craft action and martial arts spectacle that puts the film’s star, Keanu Reeves, at the center of a franchise that has defined Western action films yet again.

Reeves, as John Wick, has become both a meme and a badass and in John Wick: Chapter 3, his versatility as a fighter is front and center. As John, Reeves fights someone twice his size, a group just over half his size, uses guns, swords, knives, a horse, and his environment. While most action stars stick to their specialty and execute it well, Reeves trained for months to show a diversity of martial arts knowledge and fight acumen. A man of little words, his ability to use his body in scenes is on par with any monologue. Whether its the silence of holding a photo of his wife or the cracking of bones, Reeves is unequivocally an action icon in John Wick: Chapter 3. 

The film is one part western. While yes, John quickdraws a revolver and rides a horse, the true use of that genre is from the score that sets up his sequences. It is also one part Hong Kong action from the 1980s, where humor was baked into the fights, popularized in the West by Jackie Chan. Throughout John Wick: Chapter 3 there are moments of humor in the fights through gun reloading, weapon malfunction, a horse being used to kill an enemy, and many more. But none of it undercuts the weight of the fight and instead brings me back to memories of sitting on the couch with my dad watching Jackie Chan movies. And finally, it is one part Korean action, with the revenge fantasy baked into the core of the John Wick franchise, the brutality of those films and long single shots are also present. From killing people with books, confined spaces, knife work, and more.

One of the true beauties of John Wick as a franchise is the ability of the fight scenes to keep a high octane pace while also allowing from small pieces of reality. In John Wick 3, the cast reloads as they fight, and although sometimes it doesn’t seem like the bullet count is right, the way that Stahelski paces each scene the reloads seem natural and not like a forced moment of humor or levity. In addition, not every knife cut or stab is easy. In many cases, John has to use force to drive a blade in after the initial stabbing, especially when he is working against an area of bone like a killer’s skull. These are small touches that help craft a dynamic vision of action.

While some will fault the film for its lack of traditional story, it’s important to point out what this film does well not only in world building but what it does in pulling together different genres and styles of action that work together harmoniously to create an absurd and beautiful action film that is unparalleled in its visual composition and choreography. It is important to critique films by accessing their position in their genre and in this case John Wick: Chapter 3 blows past any marker Western action films have set as great.

Overall, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is required viewing for fans of action, Keanu, and dogs. But, in all seriousness, this film sets the bar for all action films that come after it. The revitalization of the genre is set squarely on the back of Reeves as an action star and Stahelski as a director who knows how to shoot action and create visual symphonies around one premise, to kill John Wick.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is in theaters now.

 John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
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TL;DR

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is required viewing for fans of action, Keanu, and dogs. But, in all seriousness, this film sets the bar for all action films that come after it. The revitalization of the genre is set squarely on the back of Reeves as an action star and Stahelski as a director who knows how to shoot action and create visual symphonies around one premise, to kill John Wick.