By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – May 14, 2019)
No big screen franchise, with the exception of the The Fast and the Furious films, has been more surprising in its longevity and success than the John Wick movies. Prior to the first movie’s release, it was largely seen as…well, something that most people wouldn’t see. And then, something really strange happened.
It was GOOD.
And it made money. On a 20 million dollar budget, it grossed 88 million in 2014. The sequel made 171 million against a 40 million dollar budget. This Friday, the third installment will likely hit 35-40 million in its first weekend, if not more. It’s a legitimate cult hit that came seemingly from nowhere, but there’s nothing else like it in entertainment.
There was a simplicity to the story, which also featured Keanu Reeves doing what he does best, namely not attempting to read much dialogue. That’s not his strong suit. His facial expressions are better than his words and he can play big time characters. That said, he’s known for saying sentences like, “I know kung fu” and “guns, lots of guns,” rather than any kind of extended monologue. He’s also better in this character than any other in his lengthy career, and after watching three of these movies, I can’t imagine anybody else filling the role.
John Wick‘s original plot and background story, written by Derek Kolstad, was ridiculously simple, which made it instantly approachable. Wick, an assassin, had lost his wife, Helen (Bridget Moynahan), then had his home broken into, his vintage 1969 Mustang Mach 1 stolen, and his dog killed. The last one is basically the crux of the entire franchise. The puppy was a memory of his wife, and it sent him over the edge. He searches through the first movie for the guys responsible for the criminal activity and the canicide (not a word), and in the process kills a WHOLE lot of people in stylized, ultra violent, neo noir fashion.
Director Chad Stahelski, who has done all three films, knows Reeves well, as he was Keanu’s stunt double in The Matrix, which explains a lot of the subtle nods to that trilogy that have always been a part of the Wick-verse. Incidentally, his directing partner from the original, David Leitch, went on to direct Atomic Blonde (which is basically a female John Wick, but the movie simply wasn’t very good), Deadpool 2, and he’s behind this summer’s Fast and Furious spinoff, Hobbs & Shaw.
The action borrows from classic and nouveau styles, including quite a bit of gunplay to go with some absolutely brutal, for lack of a better word, finishing move sequences. And that’s what makes John Wick work. It’s basically, in its own way, Kill Bill-esque, and the violence is so gratuitous, so over-the-top and unapologetic, that it doesn’t end up being harmful. It’s almost comic, to the extent that in the theater I screened it in, there was a lot of laughter among some of the more brutal kills.
Language is minimal, with maybe ten-ish problematic words, although a few are of the heavier variety, but generally, John Wick is just a wild, completely transparent action franchise that has weaved some extra layers of depth in its 2017 sequel. We find out more about the shadowy “High Table,” an organization of top underground crime lords that basically run the world. What’s always amusing about John Wick movies is that no one who isn’t a part of that universe knows what’s happening. There are moments in Parabellum – which translates as “prepare for war” – where people are getting absolutely annihilated and the rest of the general public doesn’t notice. In its own way, it’s as if they’re living in the Matrix while the actual characters in the film are in the real world.
The unwritten rules of the High Table set the stage both for the 2017 sequel and this installment. In Chapter 3, John Wick has a 14 million dollar bounty placed on his life after going against the group in the previous movie, and thus in effect, the movie is him defending himself against fleets of experienced fighters and assassins all hoping to cash in and win favor with the executives. Simultaneously, Wick is on a mission to try and get his “excommunicado” status changed and to get out from underneath the blood debt he owes.
So, in addition to the action, it’s also a quest movie for the lead character. The big question you may be having is whether the magic still exists in the third film, because you’ve probably seen the two previous films if Parabellum is on your radar. The answer is yes. What John Wick: Chapter 3 is supposed to accomplish, it does. Reeves and the cast are solid, the action sequences more preposterous than ever – including one that might make you think twice about ever reading a physical book again – and the stakes raised. The mythology of the Kolstad characters grows a bit, just as it did two years ago, and there’s actually a fictional world here that in the most nonsensical way possible…makes sense.
Because the violence is so well shot, so visually stunning, so absurdly tight, it’s almost disarming. It doesn’t bring the wrong emotions. There is legitimate humor to be found in the film as well, largely from characters interacting with Wick, most notably the returning Winston (Ian McShane) and the newcomer, Zero (Mark Dacascos). The latter is a John Wick fanboy assassin, someone who looks up to him, but he’s also the main guy dispatched to kill him.
There’s a give and take to the proceedings, but our protagonist is someone that not for one second in any of the three movies is the viewer not vehemently rooting for. He’s just a warrior, impossible to destroy, and his motivations are simple. He knows he has a troubled past, but one thing that also proves true in Parabellum is that innocent bystanders aren’t part of the body count. Everyone who dies is in the sludge waist deep and no one’s hands are clean. Everybody is a villain and the absence of their collective morality again distances what could be a bad influence.
These movies, most especially Chapter 3, could accurately be described as motion picture versions of a video game. The baddies get stronger, leading to a “boss fight,” and it comes across like ramping up in difficulty as if you were in control of Wick. It’s engrossing and it makes you wonder why there actually isn’t a console version of Wick, because it would appear perfect for a Stranglehold style of treatment.
This is simply a movie. It’s implausible to an insane degree, which makes it the very definition of an escape. It’s fast, it’s loud, it’s violent, it’s sensually affecting, and at times will make you cringe. There’s an animated realism to it that allows us to watch it as the next evolution of the classic action film. You care about Wick and increasingly know more about others in the world and at least comprehend their motivations. The added depth to the mythology makes a major difference. It feels like you’re learning something amidst all the carnage.
Parabellum is a roller coaster ride.
Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Lance Reddick, and Asia-Kate Dillon, in addition to those mentioned above, are all standouts as secondary performers, but it doesn’t work without Keanu, who again is up to the task. The choreography of the fight scenes and the choice of locales is its own form of art. If you liked the first two movies, if you can TAKE the violence, you’ll dig Parabellum. A lot of content I used to be okay with, I no longer am, but I can shrug here and enjoy the entertainment.
I have no idea what mind could dream up these preposterous stories and this level of ultraviolence, but I’ve had a lot of fun losing myself in the sheer fiction of this world. It’s not for children in any respect, although there’s no nudity, there’s no sexual content, and there’s very minor language compared to almost any other R-rated film. It’s all violence. But stylistic, artistic, dare I say brilliant action that virtually nothing else in the genre can touch.
It’s 131 minutes of pure, unadulterated adrenaline. It knows what it is and confidently shoots you between the eyes with its brand of crazy. The quest component continues to make it much easier to watch, as there’s a starting point and a destination to each of the three films. That gives a sense of achievement and purpose. It’s not mindless and there’s a structure underlying the style.
It’s not a movie with a message, but there is a quiet, subdued conscience behind Wick himself. He simply can’t get away from who he used to be, even though you sense that’s all he wants. Three movies in, the franchise continues to shine. It may not be for everybody, but it’s going to please its intended audience. If you’re a John Wick fan, you won’t want to miss this. Very easy to recommend for those that know and love this character. If there’s a Chapter 4, people will still be excited for it. There’s plenty left to mine here.
Plus, there are new dogs… and the pooches remain major stars in their own right.
Just don’t cross them. Trust me.