John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019)

2019 #127
Chad Stahelski | 131 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English* | 15 / R

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum

The action-man with the second most quotable line about being back is, er, back — again — for the third chapter in the ongoing saga of what happens if you kill a man’s dog. Basically, lots of people die. Quite right too.

Chapter 3 begins exactly where Chapter 2 left off: John Wick (Keanu Reeves) has been made “excommunicado” from the organisation that controls the criminal underworld, the High Table, and he has just an hour’s grace before every assassin in the world will be out to claim his life. He’s just one man, with a $14 million bounty on his head, in a New York City where about 50% of the population seem to be highly trained killers — as Winston (Ian McShane) says, his odds are “about even”.

And so the first half-hour is basically nonstop action, first as Wick desperately tries to prepare for the all-out assault coming his way, and then as he faces it. The series’ reputation is built on its lengthy, stylish, inventive action sequences, and Chapter 3 does not disappoint, with some of its best material coming right out the gate. I feel like they could’ve expanded this first half-hour into an entire movie (i.e. John on the run, fighting endless assassins, until he finds some way out of his bind) and I’d’ve been happy with that — it would’ve mirrored the simplicity of the first one. But the previous film’s cliffhanger is not so simply resolved, because what John did to earn his excommunicado status cuts deep into the mythology of this world — oh so very deep — and the fallout of his actions, well, that’s the plot of the movie. And not just for John himself, because a High Table Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) rocks up to decide the fate of any person or organisation who might’ve given John a helping hand when they really shouldn’t, including Winston, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and the Director (Anjelica Houston).

Adjudgement day

The first John Wick had a bit of fun introducing us to a rule-driven shadow-world of assassins. The first sequel put a lot of stock in extending that mythology. Now, the third chapter thrives on it. The first film’s plot was a straightforward revenge thriller with some extravagant flourishes; for the third, we’re (to borrow a phrase from Reeves’ other major action franchise) right down the rabbit hole. Just like the famed action sequences, if you’re onboard with it then there’s a ton of fun to be had; but if that kind of thing bores you, there’s little respite from it. Extravagant brutal action and gradually-unveiled ever-deepening mythology: these are John Wick’s twin raisons d’être.

Half the fun of how the films’ present their mythology lies in the way every character seems to be completely aware of all the rules. No one ever needs a symbolic coin or a judgement’s motivation explained to them; they inherently understand its significance or reasoning, the status and power that’s conferred. But we don’t know what any of it means, of course, because this is a fictional world that we’re being inducted into as and when parts of it become relevant to the narrative; and so we’re led along on a magical mystery tour of what these arcane rituals might mean and where they might lead us. As I said, it’s quite a particular kind of storytelling, and if it doesn’t engage you then that’s that, but if you do find it enjoyable then the John Wick films are spinning it into a fine art.

A hundred bad guys with swords? Who sent those goons to their lords? Why, John Wick!

Naturally, nowhere is the film’s sense of artistry more on display than in the fights. For all the mythology, director Chad Stahelski and the small team of screenwriters never forget what really made people love John Wick in the first place: the gonzo action. There’s a lot of competition in that arena (not just its own preceding instalments, but the past decade’s acclaimed imports like The Raid and its sequel, The Villainess, The Night Comes for Us, et al), but Chapter 3 is up the challenge, boasting continual inventiveness among the slickly choreographed and expertly performed carnage. One innovation includes dogs getting involved in the action — appropriate for a series all about the love of pooches. The mutts in question are commanded by an old acquaintance of Wick’s, played by Halle Berry, who trained with the dogs so she could actually control them during takes. It’s that level of dedication that marks out the action here.

It all looks great as well, with the camerawork boasting precise movement and impressively long takes to celebrate the action and how well it’s been achieved. The actual phototography is fantastic too, the light looking gorgeous whether in the neon glow of New York or the sand-orange Moroccan desert (I watched it in UHD, where it’s a real showcase for why HDR is a bigger benefit than pure resolution; though that’s not to discredit the film’s crispness). It’s complemented further by the design work, in particular a glass-house set where several key scenes take place, which reportedly cost $4 million. On any technical merit you care to name, Chapter 3 is exceptional.

Unleash the dogs of bellum

That said, while there’s fun to be had throughout, by the end I felt like the story was the film’s real problem. Not the tone and style that I praised earlier (though it’s easily the most fantastical of the series so far, which might turn some off), but its significance: it ultimately feels like merely a dot-join between Chapter 2 and the already-announced Chapter 4. The film’s Latin subtitle, Parabellum, translates as “prepare for war”, and that’s apt: this film is a preparation for the next. But maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe, when this series is all said and done, we’ll see that Chapter 3’s contribution to the overarching narrative is equivalent to the other films. However, at first blush, it feels to me like this is either a kind of linking passage, or maybe Chapter 3 Part 1. I guess only time — specifically, the time until after we’ve seen the fourth chapter (currently slated for May 2021) — will tell.

In the meantime, let’s not get too distracted from storyline niggles in a film that’s really about style over substance, in a good way. Chapter 3 certainly knows what boxes it should tick, and it ticks every last one of them with considerable flair. (Can you tick a box with flair? I bet John Wick could. After all, we know how skilled he is with a pencil…)

4 out of 5

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

* The film’s primary language is undoubtedly English, but IMDb also lists seven more. Each only pops up briefly, in short lines or exchanges here and there, which is why I haven’t cluttered the top of this post by listing them. But for the record, they are: Mandarin, Latin, Russian, Japanese, Italian, Arabic, and Indonesian. ^

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)

2017 #86
Chad Stahelski | 122 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Hong Kong / English, Italian, American Sign Language & Russian | 18* / R

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick, the action movie in which Keanu Reeves plays a retired assassin who returns to his former life to avenge the murder of his puppy, was a surprise hit back in 2014, and so it’s no surprise that there’s now a sequel (and a burgeoning universe of spin-offs and the like in the works too, but we’ll leave that for another day).

Part of the first film’s success was undoubtedly in its elaborately choreographed action — Reeves has always taken his action roles seriously, becoming a proficient performer of combat himself rather than relying on stuntmen; co-directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch have their background in stunt work also; and they all brought their considerable expertise to bear on a variety of incredible fight scenes. But another aspect that piqued audiences’ interest was the equally elaborate underworld the film casually introduced — a secret community of assassins and those who served them, with its own codes and rules, the extent of which was only hinted at. So, as good sequels are wont to do, the second chapter in Mr Wick’s story serves up more of both these elements.

The story picks up immediately after the first film left off: having dealt with his grievances in such a public fashion, the underworld is aware that John Wick is back in the game, and so an old friend comes to call in a favour. Reluctantly forced to accept, Wick is soon off on a mission to Italy, but things quickly become more complicated, making Wick a target himself. In a society governed by strictly enforced rules, how far can — and will — he go to protect himself?

Shadowy underworld

For anyone who particularly liked the snippets of this world’s mythology from the first movie, Chapter 2 delivers what they’re after in spades. Before they were just texture — fun window-dressing to the main story of a man taking violent revenge — but here they become absolutely central. We not only get to see more of the world (when Wick travels to Italy we learn a lot more about how the network of assassin-hotels functions), but the codes and how they’re enforced kick off the plot and are central to multiple aspects of it later on. It’s a neat structure across the two films, actually. The first doesn’t throw you in at the deep end with a sudden mass of things you need to learn, but instead intrigues you with a few relatable, fundamentally unimportant titbits, so that maybe you want to know more. Then the second takes what you know and expands on it, using the knowledge that you picked up almost incidentally to lead you further down the rabbit hole, to the point where it can hinge major plot developments on the rules of its own mythology. It’s quite sophisticated, in its way.

Of course, it’s all still in service of people shooting and stabbing and punching and whatever-else-ing each other. Maybe that’s doing it a disservice. Nonetheless, there’s lots of intricately choreographed, cleanly staged action — and what more do you want from a film like this? Some sequences probably go on a tad too long (a shootout in some catacombs, for example, which doesn’t payoff a careful setup as well as it could), but others are delightfully done (the climax in a hall of mirrors, for instance). But it’s not all po-faced mythologising and macho violence, with Peter Serafinowicz turning up to add a dash of humour as an armourer. There’s also a cameo for Reeves’ Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne, but his brief turn definitely falls under the “mythologising” bracket — I imagine he’ll have a continued role in the forthcoming threequel.

Morpheus no more

Speaking of which, this is the good kind of middle part to a trilogy. It very much grows out of Chapter 1, but then it starts and completes its own narrative, rather than only telling half a story, before ending such that a third instalment is inevitable. Put another way, it finishes on something of a cliffhanger. My point is, this is my idea of how a sequel that’s aiming for another sequel should be done, rather than one of those things where they want to do a four-hour movie and chop it in half. (Though I recently said Rurouni Kenshin 2 and 3 were fine doing just that, so I guess it’s a matter of how it’s done rather than whether it’s done at all.)

By expanding the world of the series, John Wick: Chapter 2 loses some of the elegant simplicity that drove the first instalment, while also fleshing out an alternate universe for fans to sink their teeth into. Some viewers will prefer the more straightforward nature of the first chapter; others will enjoy the added complications. Either way, in its primary role as an action-thriller, Chapter 2 is more-or-less the equal of its enjoyable predecessor.

4 out of 5

John Wick: Chapter 2 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

* The UK theatrical release was cut by 23 seconds to get a 15. That version was also released on Blu-ray over here, but the uncut version was released on 4K Blu-ray. I watched the regular US Blu-ray, which is uncut. ^

John Wick (2014)

2015 #89
Chad Stahelski (& David Leitch)* | 101 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

Keanu Reeves is John Wick, a nice guy whose wife sadly died. Now he lives alone with a puppy. Then he accidentally annoys a thug (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen) at a gas station, so he and his mates break into Wick’s house to teach him a lesson. The thug is the son of a big-time gangster (the Millennium trilogy’s Michael Nyqvist), so he does that kind of thing. They kill the puppy, but leave Wick alive. However, turns out Wick used to be an awesome assassin, renowned throughout the underworld — to everyone except this kid, it seems — and so he quite rightly sets out to execute their dog-murdering asses, consequences be damned.

John Wick is an action movie. I know you know that, but what I mean is, that’s kind of all it is. There’s no transcendent deeper meaning here; no attempt to explore the real life of a hired killer. If anything, this is an ultra-heightened universe, where the criminal underworld has an entire society and set of rules unto itself, including a raft of familiar faces in cameo-sized roles. It feels like it’s adapted from a comic book — they usually put that level of extra detail in more than films do — but it isn’t. There’s a rich world hinted at here; one that teases at more, but also supports the film. That is to say, there’s fan-driven talk of sequels and spin-offs set in this ‘universe’, but in and of itself it functions within the film, rather than simply being setup for more. It’s a better way to potentially start a “shared universe” franchise than the forceful way other studios are going about it with DC heroes / King Arthur / Robin Hood / et al, anyway.

A decade and a half on from The Matrix, Reeves (and presumably an army of stuntmen) remains as capable an action hero as ever. Co-directors Stahelski and Leitch have an extensive background in that field (they first worked with Reeves on The Matrix and its sequels) and so they know what they’re doing when it comes to the shoot-outs, fist-fights and car duels. Unfortunately for John Wick I watched it soon after The Guest, whose singular style ultimately made more of an impression on me, but there’s no denying the virtuoso fight work on display here. This is a film for action movie fans to revel in — it has little to offer anyone else.

That said, this isn’t a straight-up Statham-style blockhead fight-fest. That unique, unusual world it sets itself up in sees to that. It has an almost mystical, fairytale quality to it. There’s no sci-fi or fantasy element, but it does feel like Wick descends into an alternate world, one hidden alongside our own. Tonally, at times it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere (or the TV series it comes from, as I’ve never read the book). I suppose it’s because this criminal underworld has its own special rules, its own special locales, and an occasionally mannered way of talking and behaving. As I said, there’s no fantasy element, but it has a left-of-centre alternate-reality feel.

Combine that with the exciting, innovative, technically faultless action sequences and you have a distinctive, memorable movie. It seems to have gone down a storm with action movie fans, anyhow, and so those hoped-for sequels and/or spin-offs are most definitely in development. It’ll be interesting to see if it does what-I-call “a Bourne”, spiralling from a well-liked almost-sleeper-hit first film into an everyone-knows-it major franchise, or, well, not.

4 out of 5

John Wick is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK on Monday.


* Leitch is uncredited as a director due to those DGA rules that meant Robert Rodriguez had to resign his membership to give Frank Miller his due on Sin City; that meant the Coen Brothers used to just be credited as “Joel Coen”. It’s pretty clear (especially if you watch the special features) that Stahelski and Leitch worked as a team, so for once I’ve ignored my rule of only crediting the credited director. ^