Parabellum is not an ending. That’s the first point to make about the third John Wick movie. Rather than a conclusion, this is the next part in what is rapidly becoming Hollywood’s most anticipated action franchise.
This feels important to state because it goes some way of approaching Chapter 3 of what most people assumed would be the capper on one of the most fine-tuned and striking Hollywood action movie trilogies of recent years. John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 threw some striking components into a cinematic blender – high-concept, hyper-real Hong Kong and Korean kung-fu/action, post-Jason Bourne close quarter fight stylistics, the dark glamour of James Bond and even the comic-book superheroism of The Matrix and brewed them up with a Neo-noir, even Neo-Western visual spectacle. Chad Stalhelski’s franchise manages to do what Gareth Evans’ The Raid films never quite succeeded in doing; taking a pulp action movie concept, filled with influences from the last twenty-five years, and turn it mainstream. Keanu Reeves as the titular assassin no doubt helped – a familiar, likeable household name giving the one-two punch to the chest and reviving his career in the process.
The first John Wick film skews more toward Americana than the subsequent movies; while the chief villains may be Russian, they have a sleaziness about them which only allows Stahelski to hint at the deeper mythology lurking beneath the world Wick inhabits, and while it certainly lays necessary foundations for Chapter 2 and establishes the character successfully, it is only Chapter 2 when Stahelski turns John Wick into a truly iconic 21st century action anti-hero. Festooned with stunning visuals and exemplary action choreography which feels more like a violent ballet than a shoot-em-up, Chapter 2 expands the scale and brings death, throwing obstacle after obstacle in Wick’s way before leaving a tantalising cliffhanger on the bubble which suggested Chapter 3, subtitled Parabellum, would be an intense, thrilling experience.
While that is the case, John Wick: Chapter 3 is also somewhat less revelatory, and an emptier experience than the film that preceded it.
As you may have expected at the end of Chapter 2, Parabellum does not mess about in throwing John Wick deep into the problem he faced at the end of the previous film, picking up a matter of minutes after John is declared ‘ex-communicado’ by Ian McShane’s hotel owner/crime lord Winston for the murder of a crooked Italian crime figure on the sacred ground of his New York hotel, the Continental, and has one hour to try and escape a city where (almost literally) everyone is ready and willing to kill him and claim the $14 million price on his head, and rising. The first time you see John he is weakened, wounded, and he is running.
This first act, with John desperately trying to find a way out of his situation in the hour he has left and later escaping the multitude of assassins on his trail, is the part of the film that is the most successful, and one wonders if Parabellum might have been a richer sensory experience had Stahelski found some way to extend that first act into the entirety, or primary part, of the picture. The John Wick franchise always feels at its best when Wick is alone, with the odds completely stacked against him, fighting for his survival with nothing but his skills and his wits. Chapter 2 has a few moments where John is in such a situation, often getting stabbed or shot or beaten to a pulp in the process, and you really feel what he goes through. John Wick may be framed across these pictures as an Angel of Death, a literal and Biblical manifestation of vengeance, but he always felt mortal and one inch away from death himself.
Parabellum is the film that, with one eye winking at the audience, takes John from embattled survivor to an impervious, untouchable Punisher.
Mythology has always played a key role in the John Wick series, top down from the character to the world he inhabits. John is not a real man in the real world. The first film establishes him as ‘Baba Yaga’ (from the Russian folk tale), the Boogieman you send to kill the Boogieman, an urban legend of renown in the underworld he traverses. John is a fallen Angel of Death crossing the underworld. The concierge at the Continental is called Charon (Lance Reddick), who in Greek myth is the ferryman in Hades carrying the souls of the newly deceased across the River Styx. Stahelski frames Wick frequently between angelic and demonic visual iconography. The Continental is considered hallowed or sacred ground on which no violence can occur, even between mortal enemies, even those who may technically be enemies of the shadowy, ever-present High Table pulling the strings.
In this sense, John does not inhabit a world we understand. The real world is chaotic and filled with disorder, but in the underworld, there are rules. “Rules and consequences” as John opines at various points, as does Sofia (Halle Berry), manager of the Casablanca Continental who aides him midway through the picture. “Without rules, we’re with the animals” Winston claims in Chapter 2 and this carries through into Parabellum, in which John suffers the consequences of challenging those rules in order to right and wrong, and prevent a corrupt man gaining more power. It is hard to class John Wick as a noble hero—he is soaked in far too much blood—but he does believe in the rules, and is prepared to suffer the consequences even while he may break them as part of a code of honour. It classifies John more as a ronin figure, to borrow from Japanese culture – a warrior without a master, or defiant of his masters.
The issue with Parabellum is that John Wick becomes too proficient, too lucky, almost too supernaturally gifted as to make the audience fear for his future. Across this film, John faces a staggering amount of villains, goons and dilettantes he has to fight; from a lanky, strong Russian in a library, to Jerome Flynn’s powerful Casablanca boss Berrada (sporting a horrendous “where’s he supposed to be from then?” accent), to men on motorbikes wielding swords, through to Mark Dacascos’ comically sadistic Wick-fanboy Zero (seriously, Dacascos is having a ball) and his students, all of whom give John the closest he comes to a real kicking in the entire picture. And yet you never truly feel John is likely to die, or is particularly growing weaker despite the incredible level of violence and pain visited upon him in such a short space of time.
The tension in the first half hour, with John counting down to his fate and having to meet whatever comes his way head on, struggles to maintain itself across the picture as Stahelski places John on a quest to once again be accepted by the High Table, “to serve, and be of service” as their many employees (or servants) say.
Stahelski has admitted he is heavily influenced by American spaghetti Westerns for the John Wick series, particularly Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly:
Look at Clint Eastwood in [the film] – there is so much back-story unsaid there. We’re big fans of leaving it to your imagination. We just give you some gold coins, and then it’s, ‘Where do the gold coins come from?’ We’ll get to that. Have your imagination do some work there.
In Parabellum, Stahelski attempts to deliver more specific information and lore about the High Table (and indeed John’s past) that not only robs the mythology of some of this mystique, but prevents Parabellum having the clear, stripped back intensity of the previous chapter, with the entire mid-section devoted to John travelling to the cradle of civilisation and into the desert for a near-literal vision quest in his search for God, or the closest thing to him in Said Taghmaoui’s Elder.
In truth, this entire African sojourn could have been excised and Parabellum could still have found a way to reach its almost inevitable climax.
While expanding the series travelogue can work dividends (the Rome sequences in Chapter 2 are fantastic), Casablanca feels largely an excuse to tip a wink toward Michael Curtiz’ legendary 1940’s film of the same name while giving Berry (who admits she strong armed Stahelski to write her into the film) the chance to briefly become a female Wick, replete with savage attack dogs. She’s a convincing action star John alone fighting back against the elements is the heart and soul of the franchise, and everything in Africa simply feels circular and navel-gazing, as Stahelski overplays the emotional beat of John seeking to survive in order to honour the memory of his dead wife. As a motivation, it’s far less primal, powerful and tangible than avenging the murder of his dog, theft of his car, and destruction of his home – the ripping away of the simple, functional wants of the American man.
To its credit, Parabellum remembers that John’s journey of vengeance is grounded in family. The spectre of Helen continues to haunt John’s action. Winston operates as, ostensibly, a distant and mercurial father figure. You could even read Dacascos as some kind of jealous, vengeful younger sibling if you try hard. By far the most interesting new player is Anjelica Huston’s matriarchal Director of the Rula Romana, a Belarusian version of Marvel’s Red Room essentially (which we glimpsed briefly in Avengers: Age of Ultron and no doubt will be expanded in Cate Shortland’s upcoming Black Widow movie). Through her we learn John’s lineage stems from Belarus, that he honed his skills under this mother figure, and is essentially a child of two worlds: a Russian boy who became an American man, something Keanu Reeves carries off with unexpected ease. It does speak to the truth of how each film is not heavily plotted out in advance, as there has been no hint of this lineage in earlier movies, but it adds depth to John’s backstory, though unfortunately the film doesn’t delve too deeper into it.
That could all be yet to come, of course. Parabellum is merely the next part of a broader, expanding story. There are two planned spin-offs – Ballerina, which could well delve more into the Romana and feature Huston’s character, and The Continental, a TV series focused around Winston’s hotel that Stahelski is developing, the pilot of which he will direct, and will reputedly feature Reeves as John Wick (there is also a good chance we may see McShane and Reddick somehow involved too, given how they move between TV and movie projects). Parabellum is the companion piece to Chapter 2 and, indeed, could function perfectly as a four-hour movie with that earlier picture, given how it continues the narrative and thematic beats and simply expands out the High Table and the broader underworld mythology of operations ‘under the Table’, throwing in characters such as Asia Kate Dillon’s odious Adjudicator.
People ask me this all the time, am I ending the movie for a cliffhanger? Is there a number four it’s headed for? Keanu [Reeves] and I have never, from one to two, two to three, ever expected to do a sequel or a follow-up. John may survive all this shit, but at the end of it, there’s no happy ending. He’s got nowhere to go. Honestly, I challenge you right now, here’s a question to you: How do you fucking want me to end it? Do you think he’s going to ride off into the fucking sunset? He’s killed 300 fucking people and he’s just going to [walk away], everything’s okay? He’s just going to fall in love with a love interest? If you’re this fucking guy, if this guy really exist[ed], how is this guy’s day going to end? He’s fucked for the rest of his life. It’s just a matter of time.
To some extent, it is difficult to believe everyone went into Parabellum with no instincts as to where the story may go next. Watching this, the Resident Evil franchise came to find in terms of how structurally Stahelski is framing this series (not in quality, as this is leagues ahead). Paul WS Anderson would write that series with pictures that ostensibly functioned as standalone pieces but left enough doors open to take the story in different directions and allow characters to be revisited, or drop back into the narrative. John Wick is being developed in a similar fashion, with one eye on possibilities.
This absolutely makes sense. Reeves hasn’t had as good a role as Wick since Neo, and indeed Parabellum calls back to The Matrix with a cheeky line and a set-piece toward the end with a set which recalls the bullet-ridden climax of the first Matrix movie. Stahelski, and his producing partner David Leitch, have practically crafted their own sub-genre of action picture with the John Wick films (and Leitch’s Atomic Blonde, which is being considered for a Wick crossover movie) – combining pulse-pounding action with little CGI and stunts performed primarily by stars such as Reeves or Charlize Theron (taking a cue from the Tom Cruise “do it for real” school), alongside a visual palette which allows for heightened reality set pieces to exist in classical, operatic spaces. While a hodge-podge of influences do prop them up, you feel the John Wick films are now their own entity, and have managed to tap into a stylistic and storytelling alchemy few can bottle.
Yet at the same time, Parabellum feels emptier than the previous two films. It felt less of a contained piece, lacking the richness of Chapter 2 or the primal brio of the first film – and this is while the stunt work, set pieces and scope have all grown bigger and, in many places, improved. It just all felt a little less stunning this time around, less revolutionary, and it was in danger of John Wick escaping his earthly-bounds—no matter how heavily he has been mythologised as a fusion of Greek, Biblical and supernatural literature—and becoming so unstoppable you never feel like anyone is quite the match. It needs to find a new trick in the bag for the inevitable John Wick: Chapter 4 if it wishes to prevent itself growing stale.
Parabellum comes from the Latin phrase “Si vis pacem, para bellum”, meaning “if you want peace, prepare for war”. This is a fine piece of preparation which thoroughly entertains, but at times it feels like little more.
★ ★ ★
DIRECTOR: Chad Stahelski
WRITERS: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams
CAST: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Ian McShane