John Wick Chapter 3 Parabellum

I thought I understood where this third John Wick movie was going. I thought the second movie was this series Empire Strikes Back or Back to the Future 2; a movie where the end leaves the characters kind of stranded, kind of defeated, a low point setting up a triumphant third part of the story. John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum is not that triumphant third piece of a trilogy. It is a bigger, messier movie in the series that sends the titular protagonist on a journey through hell, but it is a highly entertaining trek.

Parabellum picks up right where Chapter 2 left off, with John Wick an hour away from being declared excommunicado, running with no safe place to run to. Wick starts this movie desperate, and it never really gets better. First, he has to escape New York. Then he has to find a way to get the contract on him lifted, to get back in the good graces of the High Table, the group that leads the assassin world. To do this, he has to call in all the favors left to him. He has one from The Director, who runs a ballet/wrestling school and has some kind of past with John Wick. She gets him passage to Casablanca, where he meets up with Sofia, cashing in another favor to try to find The Elder, to get him to intervene on his behalf with the High Table.

While Wick fights every assassin in the world, the High Table sends an adjudicator to hand out punishment to everyone who helped Wick along the way, from Winston at the Continental Hotel to the Bowery King to people he encounters in this movie. There are fewer and fewer safe places for John Wick to go.

John Wick does not have the resources available to him in this movie that he had in the past, making the fights rougher and meaner. Lots of knives, lots of hand to hand combat. This is not the carefully planned assassination from the last movie, with John Wick getting outfitted for every contingency. This is a scramble to survive, all the way up to the final action scene.

The movie introduces more allies and/or enemies with history with Wick. The most interesting is Sofia, played by Halle Berry. Sofia is essentially a female John Wick; one who realized she would never get out of the life and did what she could for her family. She shows her similarity to Wick in one of the movies highlight action scenes, right down to her affection for canines. Then there is Zero, an assassin hired by the High Table to help them get revenge on Wick. He too is another master murderer, this one something of a John Wick fan trying to prove himself to the legend by killing the legend. I kind of want to say more about certain developments in this movie, but I really don’t want to spoil it.

John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum is amazing in all the ways that its predecessors were amazing. This one tries to go bigger, and I would be lying if I said that path did not lead to some diminishing returns. I don’t fault the movie for it, the previous two basically perfected this sort of balletic violence. What is there left for this chapter but for more and bigger? It mostly works here, while occasionally feeling like too much; like the movie went too big. There are still plenty of memorable fights and letting characters that are not Wick get in more on the action was a good idea. It is everything you could want in an action movie.

I misread where John Wick was on his hero’s journey. I though the last movie ended with him further along, with John Wick at the abyss, ready to start his ascension out of the underworld. With the third chapter, I realized that he has much further to go. After Parabellum, I am eager for more adventures for John Wick and eager to see him find peace.

*****

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John Wick Chapter 2

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The first John Wick movie was a very well executed piece of pulp. It was a stripped down, lean revenge movie with excellent action sequences and some nice bits of humor. This follow up loses a lot of the humor, but comes back strong in every other regard, fleshing out the world that first movie only hinted at and doing its best to outdo that movies already terrific action. I don’t know that it quite succeeds in being better than the first movie, but if it’s not it is really close.

John Wick Chapter 2 picks up soon after the last movie left off. Once Wick (Keanu Reeves) has gotten revenge for the murder of his puppy, he sets out to retrieve the car that was stolen from him at the same time. Once that little detail is taken care of, he returns home with his new dog to resettle into retired life, only to find another link to his time as a hitman coming back in the form of Santino D’Antonio. Wick owes him a blood debt and since Santino has heard that Wick is out of retirement, he’s decided to cash in. After some convincing, Wick takes on the mission and the movie is off and going.

The movie does a lot of more to flesh out the intricate underworld that the first movie hinted at with its Continental hotel that caters to assassins and everyone pays in gold. The rules that they all live by, most importantly that no business is to be done on Continental grounds, are fleshed out and made more clear. It does this not through rote or dull dialogue, but by having Wick take advantage of the services provided and oblique conversations that mention new concepts. It gives the viewer just enough to understand the plot and to give the feeling that there is more going on in this world than is immediately apparent. The best little Continental interlude is easily Wick’s visit to the sommelier, who instead of dispensing wines he helps match customers to the proper weapons. It is one of the few scenes that keep the first film’s sense of humor.

Where the film truly shines is its actions scenes. Few movies have actions scenes as well choreographed and realized as the John Wick movies. Much of the thanks goes to Keanu Reeves, who is able to do the extended takes that many of the action scenes here feature. Unlike many choppy action movies, John Wick’s fight scenes are frequently smooth takes that go on much longer than most and zoom out further to give the viewer a better view of scene rather than closer to hide how much of it isn’t really happening. It helps that whoever staged the action did simply an incredible job. The action is as good as it gets and that is why you are coming. It is worth mentioning, though, that the fights have incredibly graphic violence, so those with an aversion to blood or unspeakable things done with a pencil might want to think long and hard before watching this.

The film’s storytelling economy that reveals its world is also put to good use introducing characters, especially since the bulk of the characters from the last movie didn’t make it out alive. John Wick Chapter 2 introduces some rival assassins in Common’s Cassian and Ruby Rose’s Ares, both of which are given fairly full sketches with only small amounts of screen time. It also introduces Laurence Fishbourne as some sort of homeless king in a fun cameo, as well as maximizing the time to the returning Ian McShane and Lance Reddick.

The title character changes the most in this second film, or more accurately our perception of him changes the most. In the first he was a retired assassin out for revenge, now he is an assassin out of retirement. Before it was kind of fun, this time it is more sad. There is no escape for John Wick, and when there is an escape he seems incapable of taking it. It changes him from a driven, talented man out for revenge to a very sad man with a death wish. He could walk away, he should walk away but what does he have to walk away to? This movie systematically strips the few things he had after the last movie away from him, leaving him with nothing.

While it is something of a downer, it is still an excellent film. It is the Empire Strikes Back to the first John Wick’s Star Wars. With a third movie already announced on the way let’s hope there is a satisfying next chapter in this tale.

****1/2