by Will Ross
By this point there’s not much arguing that Chad Stahelski is one of the most technically and aesthetically accomplished directors of action in western cinema. Sure, you can make the case that the John Wick movies — his entire filmography to date — aren’t ideal uses of his talent, but as far as the setup and execution of car chases, gunfights, knife fights, and kung fu battles, I don’t think there’s many ways to fault him for lacking competence or creativity. The particular brand of pop cinema that Stahelski and his team pull off here is something that you can’t find anywhere else, and in a way that makes John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum one of the best modern action movies of its kind. That it is still a decidedly flawed movie may speak to the lack of great work being done in that sphere by Hollywood filmmakers, but it also shouldn’t deter appreciation by what it gets right, and what it gets so, so right is its ability to economically introduce interesting fight scenarios and then capitalize on them with panache.
The plot reconfigures the rules and stakes from the last chapter, but still feels very much of a formula: Reeves is back as John Wick, the former assassin who took revenge on a low-level mobster for killing the puppy his wife had delivered to him just after her death, setting off a chain of resentment and attempts of payback all the way up to the “High Table”, a council of the most powerful criminals in the world who have a text message to every criminal in the world that they should kill John Wick, or at the very least not help him. Enforcing the will of that council is the “Adjudicator”, a brusquely direct emissary who informs those who have displeased the high table (usually by helping John Wick) that they have to accept punishment in the form of a bunch of scarring sword slices or having their hands stabbed or being fired. I’m not sure why she doesn’t just have them killed, which crime bosses tend to do to avoid having maimed or humiliated underlings turn against them, but I’m not gonna raise too much of a stink about a premise that is openly ridiculous in the first place. I wish the plot of these movies made more sense, but it rarely gets in the way of the action.
That’s similarly the biggest compliment you can pay to the music, which, to be 100% clear, is me damning it with faint praise. While Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard once again avoid the overwhelmingly generic rock beats ‘n’ guitar chords of the first film by using a broader palette of electronic rhythms and ambiences, the music remains frustratingly limited in its development and tonal flexibility. The main theme in particular has received virtually no meaningful embellishment over the course of three movies now, which particularly stings given it was never a complex or especially expressive theme to begin with. One could argue that John Wick himself isn’t the most dynamic character, but that’s no excuse for this kind of musical inertia. It certainly doesn’t stop the film’s other craftspeople from trying new things elsewhere.
(A sidebar on a particularly annoying aspect of the score: The single most interesting musical decision in the film is the use of the first Winter movement from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. Unlike the second film’s Vivaldi cue, which used a heavily electronic remix of the third Summer movement, the use of Winter I here is a straightforward orchestral performance of the original composition, which works terrifically well to create a chilled sense of foreboding. Confusingly though, rather than changing to an action-movie styled take on the movement or using the fast-paced third Winter movement, once the fighting starts the soundtrack reprises that same damn Summer electronic piece from Chapter 2, a nonsensical choice that once again foregrounds what an ineffective redo it was. Given that the credits feature a similar remix of Winter I, it seems like a safe assumption that Stahelski was unsatisfied with the new cue, opted to reuse the old piece, and stuck Bates’s and Richard’s take on “Winter” in the credits. I can’t entirely blame him, since the piece heard in the credits once again scuttles the rhythmic glories of Vivaldi’s piece and uses a dull electronic arrangement, but undercutting the continuity of the musical concept by using the reprise was at least as bad a choice, especially when it meant reusing a cue that wasn’t good to begin with.)
Just as Bates and Richards earn the same criticisms, every positive thing I said about Dan Laustsen’s cinematography in the last one applies here (though sadly this time Kevin Kavanaugh’s production design finds less opportunities for those ornate parodies of locations). Laustsen’s work in this series is a highlight of the 2010s’ neon revival, tremendously baroque with its placement of coloured lights and shadows and thoughtful in its scope framing, assisted by Stahelski’s marvelous gift for camera direction, which is more consistent here than ever, both in the loud and quiet parts. That goes for the loud parts especially though; the clearness of the staging belies the complexity and precision of the camerawork here. In particular, one sequence involving two gunfighters fighting alongside two dogs makes incredible use of the camera to establish the lateral space and track how quickly and efficiently the dogs can close that distance while keeping everyone’s position’s clear in any given moment. A John Wick movie could work with a lot of parts or personnel shuffled around, but it’s hard to imagine one this good without Stahelski and Laustsen behind it.
While John Wick mostly confined itself to superlative displays of driving and gun fu from Reeves and Chapter 2 added interest by setting up his limitations and making more extensive use of the fight settings, Chapter 3 blows elevates the series to new levels of complexity and invention. There are multiple action sequences in Parabellum that take unusual premises (fighting in a stable full of horses, fighting in a room full of antique bladed weapons behind glass, fighting goons who are so heavily armoured that the only way to actually kill them is by walking up, opening their helmets’ visors, and shooting into them) and explore every logical avenue imaginable and, most delightfully, many I didn’t imagine at all. One of the most relieving things about this is just how funny the action is, how almost every fight indulges over and over in those Buster Keaton-esque setups and payoffs, those logical extremes that shock you, but at the same time make complete sense for the characters and their situation. While the last two or three fight scenes lack this sense of humour on account of being standard melee combat, they are at least excellent melee combat, if a bit of an anti-climax (made all the more familiar by an obvious nod to the structure of Game of Death). The only real complaint I have is that the sound design, while mostly terrific, is a little overeager to make every impact a thooming, bone-crushing smash, which makes it hard to distinguish the big hits from the really big hits. You can’t go up from 10, as they say.
One way that Parabellum achieves such diverse action scenarios is by leaning harder into an episodic story structure than either of the Wicks before it. On one hand, this means that dramatic development is extremely minimal, as characters tend to show up, have their personal conflicts introduced, and then either be killed outright or be shown the door for potential reuse in a sequel. By traditional standards of feature film storytelling, this is a problem; here, though, quickly sketched, entertaining characters are entirely suited to economically setting up the conditions and stakes of the next big rumble. I don’t think I’d go so far as saying it’s a good script — the writing is mostly boilerplate as usual, the rules of the universe are still a bit arbitrary and inconsistent, and the material is primarily elevated by the cast’s more over-the-top performances and Stahelski’s direction — but Derek Kolstad has sanded off a lot of the issues that his scripts caused for the first two movies. This time around his most unforgivable sin is having Keanu Reeves deliver a weightless nostlagia-boom for fans of The Matrix by having him say, “Guns, lots of guns”. I mean come on, man. We’re all aware he was Neo.
After three movies of insanely brutal carnage, though, it probably behooves one to, uh, think about violence for a second. What, after all this, almost six hours of headshots and flipping people over and smashing vehicles, does it all mean? The easy (and filmmaker-intended) answer is “not a thing, it’s a cartoon, enjoy it,” but that feels a little too pat. I’ve seen reactions to John Wick: Chapter 3 that chastise it for indulging so gleefully in gun violence, but that feels too exclusionary towards the self-aware cartoonishness that the series has cultivated and improved from one entry to the next (and I do not have the patience to return to a debate about whether violent cartoons are “moral”). Maybe what squash and stretch physics do for the emphatic motion and chaos of Bugs Bunny, brain matter and broken bones do for the John Wick movies; mutual exaggerations of the physical effects of violence. Maybe laughing at most of a head disappearing under a shotgun blast is different than laughing at Wile E. Coyote turning into an accordion. Maybe one is more honest, maybe one desensitizes you less. Maybe it’s okay to have fun in a movie where horrible people who are caricatures of organized criminals in an absurdly implausible global gang hierarchy murder each other in creative ways. Yeah, that last one feels good. Let’s go with that.
Other Essays in This Series