John Wick 3: Prepare for More.
Parabellum marks an unfortunate lapse in quality for the high-minded action franchise.
For all its talk of rules and consequences, the John Wick franchise has developed a frustratingly stubborn refusal to follow any of the ones it’s set for itself. Specifically in terms of quality: While the opening entry was an efficient little revenge thriller that transcended expectations simply by giving us action cleaner than we knew we wanted it, Chapter 2 stops just shy of being an out-and-out action masterpiece. The universe and character were both deepened in equal measure, Derek Kolstad’s fantastic script pushing both the action and Wick himself into exciting new places, always making sure to remind the audience to consider the consequences of having done so.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum finds Kolstad joined by a writers’ room worth of other voices, and the effect on the script is an end product every bit as messy and unwieldy as its title. Make no mistake: This is still your grandma’s classic, true-blue John Wick. Remember all those headshots? You’re getting a whole lot more of ’em this time. How about that one time John Wick had to reload in the middle of killing a guy? Well, now he’s going to do that shit so many times that you might literally lose track (other characters will also now do this very cool thing). Looking for more of that John Wick lore that we all know and love? Here, allow us to simply up-end the entire box of it over your heads. What, you’re not into all that lore? When your’e done wiping the lore out of your eyes, you’ll understand. Oh, yes you will.
By essentially making the audience smoke the entire pack of cigarettes, Parabellum jams entirely too much of what made John Wick so exciting in the first place down its collective throat. What seemed before like a carefully-constructed shadow world that existed just beneath the parchment-thin layer of order that constitutes our own has now been reduced to a number of “Hey, wouldn’t that be cool?” type of ideas, each one straining the franchise’s careful balance of credulity that much more than the last.
This third entry, as per tradition, picks up immediately after the last one, as John Wick has been marked “excommunicado” and must now make his way out of New York City. This goes just about as you’d expect, which is very much to the film’s credit. The opening 30 or 45 minutes of Parabellum are far and away its finest, Wick’s flight out of New York whisking him through a barrage of increasingly unrealistic locations, each one utilized in a way that cleanly makes you forget about its improbability. As soon as I was done thinking, “Ah yes, of course we would wind up in one of downtown Manhattan’s many horse stables,” I found myself audibly whooping at what wound up basically amounting to a fucking horsefight. Another seemingly-random production decision (further evidence that these films are location-scouted first and then written second) had this same fight spilling over into what appears to simply be an armory, for some reason, resulting in one of the most hilariously kinetic, almost breathlessly Keaton-esque murder parties I can remember seeing put to film.
Unfortunately, the movie has to stop and take a breath at some point, and when it does, it reveals itself as having unfortunately little to say about its proceedings. It’s almost never fair to hold the failings of one film up against the successes of another, but it’s nearly impossible not to walk out of Parabellum wondering what happened to the high-minded character study that was at play in Chapter 2. Whenever the action stopped, that film utilized its downtime to pose interesting questions about the contents of John Wick’s soul and the nature of the very violence in which he was compulsively engaged. Those first and second films don’t just introduce a violent underworld that exists parallel to our own, they also introduce meaty questions about the cycles of grief and vengeance that manage to keep its characters participating with it. It all works not just because of Kolstad’s commitment to lean, yet introspective storytelling, but because of how carefully-laid-out the pieces of that universe consistently wind up being.
Parabellum throws a lot of that polish out the window, and often does so in ways that are very clearly rooted in the fact that following all of the rules this franchise has established for itself would simply have made this movie harder to write. Why end Chapter 2 on the bell-toll of John Wick’s being marked excommunicado if that’s going to basically amount to nothing in the third chapter? Wick bounces from location to location, almost never encountering the kind of operational difficulty that would be suggested by his excommunicado status, helped out by almost literally every character he meets. At perhaps the most anticlimactic moment in the entire film, Wick demands to be taken to what we’re told is an all-powerful character, one that transcends the very High Table whose will dominates the entire franchise…only to be inexplicably sat down in front of someone at least 10 to 15 years younger than almost every other character we’ve met so far. Motivations and loyalties that have been discussed and established in previous films are thrown entirely out the window, supporting characters enter and exit this one without having any kind of concrete impact on its proceedings, and—in what might amount to the film’s primary outrage—an endless parade of action sequences starts to seriously show the strains of repetition.
Despite its new locations and a criminally underutilized Halle Berry (seriously, she’s one of maybe two or three characters whose scenes could have been cut with little to no impact on the film’s cohesion), Parabellum really fails to elevate itself in the ways that its predecessors did. Chad Stahelski and his stunt team certainly continue to bring the clean-shot action choreography that’s become such a staple of both John Wick and Keanu Reeves films, at this point, but do so without anything to lift the material above anything beyond a simple retread. Gone is the novelty on which the first film was able to succeed. Gone are the eye-pleasing, high-contrast HDR visuals of the second. Instead, Parabellum serves up a series of increasingly-repetitive fights, taking place in a series of increasingly-ridiculous locations, and all bound together by a script that flouts cohesion and abandons its characters.
While it’s impossible to know who contributed what to the construction of a given story, it’s also impossible to ignore the fact that Parabellum’s ultimate failure lies squarely in its inability to maintain the careful worldbuilding that exists in the rest of the franchise. It would feel, very distinctly, as though the singular vision responsible for the first two chapters in John Wick’s story has been somehow diluted for this third entry, whether the credits listed three extra screenwriters after Kolstad’s name or not. They do, though, making it tough not to tie things like muddy worldbuilding and confused character motivation to a terminal number of cooks in the kitchen.
Given that the end of Chapter 3 makes no bones about its intentions for there to be a fourth film, it doesn’t look as though Parabellum will serve as any kind of low-point ending to the franchise. We’ll undoubtedly be seeing you again, John, so here’s hoping you have a bit more to say for yourself when we do.
Oh, and also…
- Straight-up character assassination, the way this movie did Winston dirty.
- As much as I love Saïd Taghmaoui, why the hell is The Elder a 40-year-old dude?
- Mark Dacascos was an absolute joy, but felt distinctly as though he was in a different movie from everyone else.