When the inimitable Tony Scott was eulogised, it was often said that he didn’t make action movies, he made action films. Director Chad Stahelski’s “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is an action film. At its centre, one of the greatest action stars of the last 30 years – ageing stallion Keanu Reeves.
In the final moments of “John Wick: Chapter 2,” Winston (the delicious Ian McShane) gives John Wick (Reeves) a gift; One hour. Sixty minutes of grace before he unleashes the flood gates of New York’s assassin community to collect an incredible bounty to capture and kill the boogie man.
The congested streets of New York City are where we lay our scene; John Wick is ‘excommunicado’ on a last ditch effort to get out before his ‘diplomatic immunity’ is revoked. While Mr Wick seeks salvation, those who helped him during his pursuit Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), must suffer the consequences at the hands of The Adjudicator (the steely and ruthless Asia Kate Dillon).
Grace, determination, grit; Keanu Reeves has found the perfect character vehicle for the breadth of his skill-set. In much of the movie, Keanu is applying his unbelievable martial artistry – throwing, grappling, choking or simply bludgeoning foes. Technical proficiency with all manner of weaponry – throwing knives, hatchets, Wick’s signature ‘GUN FU’ and even a stellar reconstruction of old pistols to fire a modern bullet.
But wait, as you’ve likely seen from the trailers – there’s also an equestrian section. It’s an action movie that called for applause and hooting and hollering. That isn’t all; Reeves must convey a directionless and desperate Mr Wick this time around. His indecision and fluctuating allegiances are a significant change of pace from the tunnel vision of the previous chapters of the franchise.
Keanu’s greatness is as much about his ability to relinquish the stage to and elevate the litany of unbelievable performers that are around him. With Bowery King Laurence Fishburne, The Director Anjelica Huston and Randall Duk Kim as Doc (to name a few), Keanu chooses ‘the assist’ for each exchange. With Huston, his desperation allows us to ruminate in her judgement. No-one in the world does ‘judging you’ face like Queen Anjelica. With Kim, the supportive Doctor, it’s John’s lightning adherence to suggested ‘safe’ wounds that are like a gunpowder punctuated double act.
Halle Berry’s Sofia is delightfully impatient with a laser-sighted bullshit radar. A former associate of Mr Wick’s, entangled in his futile pursuit of reinstatement to the world of assassins. Wick’s salvation is as much about the character as it is about Berry. The Oscar winner’s pursuits to solidify herself as an African American female action star suffered a double tap entry wound to the skull with back to back headshots “Die Another Day” and “Catwoman”.
In Wick, when Sofia arrives, she and her extraordinarily obedient and vicious Belgian Malinois take centre stage. The power dynamic is of note; Berry is the furious balletic leading power-punch, and Keanu supportively mops up the leftovers. Director Chad Stahelski shifts the entire focus of ‘Parabellum’ to comply with her energy in this window. Fellow critic Walter Chaw observed that that last time he saw a blockbuster do the same was Mad Max Fury Road. I could not agree more.
Ian McShane has taken the reins of Winston, an essential cameo in John Wick, and evolved into this New York assassin community’s equivalent of Deadwood’s Al Swearengen. The McShane and Dillon interplay, a fencing match where eyebrows roll and react to the seismic disturbances of the interaction, is terrific.
Mark Dacascos plays the delightfully bent Zero. He’s a High Table shill and Wick super-fan whose merry band of ruthless assassins (including “Raid” alumni – Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian) dole out the punishment for The Adjudicator. The face-off between Mr Wick and Zero is something to behold. His men are instructed to maintain a level of restraint because he wants a chance to meet his hero. Their face-off is titanic. There’s misdirection, frustration; Zero is lapping up a wounded and rabid Mr Wick. Their interactions, though, are tension releasing; resembling those single serve fan confessional.
Director Chad Stahelski’s action directing approach speaks to his practical understanding of fulfilling the stunt work that every single moment of action is elevated. In a long knife fight through an armoury of ancient weapons, the camera glides along the floor, tilt upward to appraise and showcase the grinding maul of Keanu’s martial arts mash. Keanu’s stance, torque spinning hips, swarming rolling jiu-jitsu mounts are evaluated like an audition.
And during Sofia’s war-zone action sequences Stahelski holds on each stunt to its completion, marvelling at each performers commitment to a fall or feigned death. And the synchronicity of katana blades, unsheathed in unison, during a mind-blowing Brooklyn Bridge chase, results in a kind of mind defibrillation.
With cinematographer Dan Laustse setting the mood each expression of cinematic violence not only leaves you gasping from the unflinching malice; the glorious battlefield settings because nightmarish projections of the characters inner turmoil. Writers Derek Kolstad (the chief architect of the John Wick story thus far), Shay Hatten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams once again manage the precarious task of world expansion while maintaining the frenetic accelerating pursuit of Mr Wick.
Parabellum features some of the most overt homages to action cinema and acknowledgement of the iconic man behind the Wick. The movie, in essence, travels back in time. We move through a portal in John’s distant past; the bowels of a Baroque theatre, where children are squeezed in a vice to (hopefully) crystallise into diamonds. His past life, ancient streets of Casablanca feel like they’ve been unearthed. To rolling Moroccan Dunes – that feels plucked out of David Lean – to represent the earliest lore of the formation of the High Table.
As I began watching “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum,” I attempted to take notes. In one of the opening scenes, the gigantic NBA player turned actor (Boban Marjanovic) ambushes Mr Wick in New York Library ahead of his literal and figurative deadline. After one utterly brutal melee sees Mr Wick use a book to slay this giant I was able to scribble one legible note dark cinema before I was frozen, transfixed for this utter thrill ride. I wrote, “he put the book back”. Parabellum means “prepare for war,” and I was not prepared for just how spectacular “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” was.