2019 Film Reviews

Review: Chad Stahelski’s ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’

By alluding to the famous Latin phrase “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“If you want peace, prepare for war”), the third installment in the John Wick trilogy aptly bears the title John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Director Chad Stahelski delivers a violent continuation of John Wick (2014) and John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017).

Brandishing choice parabellums (machine guns), John Wick (Keanu Reeves) executes quite a war to behold. After becoming excommunicado at the end of John Wick: Chapter 2 and receiving a $14 million bounty on his head, John dons the bloodiest gauntlet yet, facing daunting odds. Former allies are now either indifferent or full-fledged enemies. To make amends with The Assassins’ Guild and their master, John must go on a hellish odyssey, battle his most deadly rival, and seek out his two remaining allies. John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum delivers action as big and bold as any fan could want. However, the execution is not as robust and precise as the weapons.

Unlike the previous entries in the series, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum wastes no time getting to the action. In the first hour, dialogue exists at a bare minimum, focusing instead on cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s simplistic yet sufficient camera work and the captivating action/stunt choreography. Laustsen keeps the camera in medium close up range at all times, and the actors are held in the center of each frame. This is an excellent service to the stunt work on display and key visual centerpieces. The stunts entail realistic gun executions that audiences have come to expect, of which include death by horse stomping, a tomahawk to the head and martial arts fighting of style and quality akin to Bruce Lee. If the first two films are a spiritual continuation of the Death Wish (1974) series, then John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a love letter to Game of Death (1978) and silent cinema icon Buster Keaton, “The Great Stone Face. “

The film crew of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum effectively captures a foreboding sense of fear and paranoia. Downtown Manhattan is washed over in dark neon blue. Laustsen capitalizes on the rough, ugly shapes that make up the New York streets. The interior shots exude a cold and unsympathetic tone, which is a staple of John Wick films, but they are doubly important in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum because Reeves’ character is at his most vulnerable and adrift. The best visual feast has to be the darkly lit streets of Casablanca. The alleyways are warped, with a gritty expressionist neo-noir vibe. Not even Rick Blaine would be caught dead walking these streets after curfew.

In terms of casting, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a mixed bag. Halle Berry and Anjelica Huston are both welcome additions to the fold. They never outstay their welcome and offer further insight into the Wickverse mythos. Berry counters Wick’s cold and calculating demeanor with a feisty femme fatale attitude. Her backstory is equally as tragic as John’s, and it doesn’t take long before it feels like her character been part of the franchise all along. Huston, meanwhile, has the honor of being the latest lynchpin in Wick’s mysterious origin story. She gives the best piece of Wick dialogue, as she epiphanizes “Art is pain, and life is suffering.”

The other new cast members do not fare as well in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. The High Council Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) plays a role that could have been as easily performed by Siri A.I. The screenwriters gave her little substance with which to work. Yet, the most mundane performance comes from sushi ninja chef Zero (Mark Dacascos). Compared to previous rival assassins, Zero is a character that seems out of place. His jokey dialogue and overall fighting style belong more so in a Ryan Reynolds Deadpool (2016, 2018) movie. It could have been a conscious decision by the scriptwriters to contrast these two assassins, but this type of meta-humor in a John Wick film — where emersion is paramount — doesn’t jive well.

Pacing and a less dynamic second half are other concerns. The first franchise movie, John Wick, is 101 minutes long. It sustains a break neck pace and always ups the ante in the methods of killing. At 124 minutes, John Wick: Chapter 2 still manages to be consistently creative in the methods of John’s executions and final blows. The murders in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (125 minutes) start out fresh and innovative, but then quickly deteriorate into just another head shot. These shoot out moments in the Casablanca section are cool at first, but drag out far too long. Unlike John Wick: Chapter 2, there are no inventive melee pencil moments to break up the monotony of the second half. The sword fight sequences near the finale add some variety, but they are far extended. It’s almost as if the director got caught up in his voyeuristic passion of human violence and forgot to say “Cut.”

Undermining the overall execution of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum are its core theme and ideas. Rules and consequences are central to the previous John Wick chapters. “Rules… without them, we live with the animals” — Winston states and reinforces this mantra, and yet the rules and consequences seem to matter not in this latest entry. By the end of the film, everyone’s status is not a logical and realistic consequence of rules and actions. The finale is déjà vu. This begs the question, outside of the gun violence, what was the point of watching this episode play out?

As a whole, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a fun romp and continues the Greek/pulp mythology set up in John Wick: Chapter 2. In future installments, Stahelski might want to tone down the campiness, otherwise the series will lunge into self-parody. Before John Wick gets back to his work AGAIN, he may want to consider his next course of action carefully.

Peter Bell (@PeterGBell25) is a 2016 Master of Arts – Film Studies graduate of Columbia University School of Arts in New York City. His interests include film history, film theory and film criticism. Ever since watching TCM as a child, Peter has had a passion for film, always trying to add greater context to film for others. His favorite films include Chinatown, Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia, A Shot in the Dark and Inception. Peter believes movie theaters are still the optimal forum for film viewing, discussion and discovering fresh perspectives on culture. 

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