John Wick is a hunted man.
After murdering rival, Santino, within the sanctuary of the New York Continental hotel at the end of John Wick: Chapter 2, manager Winston (Ian McShane) grants John (Keanu Reeves) an hour’s start, before calling the incident in, leading to Wick being declared ‘excommunicado’, and having a $14 million (and rising) bounty placed on him, making John a target for assassins worldwide.
As John seeks to avoid his pursuers, he is able to retrieve artefacts that buy him safe passage to Casablanca, where he seeks help from fellow assassin Sofia (Halle Berry). Meanwhile the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) of Assassins’ governing body, The High Table, hires Zero (Mark Alan Dacascos) to enforce its bounty. Events return John to New York, where he will face off against Zero and associates, and find himself once more in the company of Winston, as the High Table seeks its price from both men.
2014’s John Wick ran a taut 101 minutes. Its sequel, 2017’s John Wick: Chapter 2, justified a more leisurely running time of 122 minutes. Now John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum arrives at 131 minutes: this is too long for an entry in this franchise. The first film remains tightest. The second was flabbier, but more than compensated in its expanding of the world: the organisational structures, use of currency, armouring arrangements, and assassins’ code of conduct all deepened through the telling of that tale. At around two hours, it was more than long enough for a film that is, in general, a series of action set-pieces. And in that second film the action style was becoming a little repetitive – with many of Wick’s one-on-one kills looking similar, and even beginning to outstay its welcome by the end, though that stunning ending, and the world in which John now found himself, was remarkable.
A flaw in the second film relative to the franchise opener was (at least a perception of) the tendency to give Keanu Reeves too much to say. Reeves is an outstanding physical actor, and demonstrates a commitment to his work that more than justifies the success he has had. It is fair to say, however, that when tackling dialogue he perceives to be serious, his delivery can be flat, and suck energy from a scene; though his soft, sonorous voice is remarkable for how at odds it is with the in-universe reputation of the John Wick character – it does add to the effect to have him talk a little. On balance, it is a toss-up between Parabellum‘s predecessors for which is the better film – leanness vs. world building; fresh vs. familiar; straightforward vs. bullet-proof suits.
So where does Parabellum fit into this? The opening act of the film is, as audiences would expect, John Wick vs. the World – the assassin’s World anyhow. Exciting though that is, the film wisely moves on to give key focal points to our antagonists – the Adjudicator and Zero characters giving us identities on which to focus; while leaving our protagonist in a world where he remains at dire risk everywhere he goes. Providing the Sofia character to John is wise, on paper, as it should allow for a confidante, and a change of pace. It is a shame much of this section of the film feels like padding, however. The narrative drivers for John to be in Casablanca are undone almost immediately, once our lead returns to the US. To give Wick space from the centre of battle is the right instinct, but it costs narrative momentum, while adding unnecessary running time; even the major action set piece of Act 2 is too long, despite some inventive use of Sofia’s dogs.
On that point, the narrative structure fails to be as effective as either previous entry, in general. The mythos around Wick that was sold so strongly in the first acts of each – first as it becomes clear to Michael Nyqvist’s Viggo character who his son had antagonised (the Wick name being legendary), and second, where Viggo’s brother realises that Wick has arrived to reclaim his car – is not as clear here. By contrast, Parabellum casts John as under siege. Though it could be argued that the respect he is afforded by the sheer numbers sent to tackle him – a man without resources at this point – is as emboldening to the mythos: it is simply presented in a different way. That the film sought to add something new is to be applauded. The set-up to Chapter 2 – as great as that film is – was, by contrast, a rote excuse to get John back in the game. Similarly, in something like the Taken series, it was always a villain’s brother/close relative back for revenge. Parabellum is an organic continuation of our story in a way that Chapter 2 could not have been, given the first film had to stand alone.
Where Parabellum soars is in its action. All of these films have been top-notch in that regard, but director Chad Stahelski has found greater invention and variation here than in film two, where the wrestling to the floor, followed by a leg over the top, then a bullet to the head was getting repetitive. Here the style (largely) remains, but we have exceptional sequences on horseback, on bikes, as well as hand-to-hand – with more variation in style and weapon. Act 3 is also baggy, with action set pieces overstaying their welcome – but this is a minor quibble.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum continues the exceptionally high standard of a series that has given Keanu Reeves a second – completely unexpected – action franchise, and completes a trilogy that now, definitively, is the better, by a distance, of the two: delivering three terrific films, against The Matrix‘s one (followed by two turgid sequels). Despite film two setting this up to complete a neat, tidy trilogy, the lack of any serious drop in quality suggests there is more than the filmmakers can do here – something also suggested by this film’s climax. More of this mythology is very welcome, but watch that running time guys.