EXPECTATIONS: One of the best action films of 2019.
REVIEW: Of all the franchises and all the sequels and all the highly buzzed projects of 2019, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is one of my most anticipated. In international cinema, seeing lots of practiced stuntwork, unparalleled skills of martial arts and accomplished filmmaking without the excessive need of the bells and whistles of CGI has been plentiful with films like South Korea’s The Villainess (2017), Indonesia’s The Raid films (2011, 2014), Vietnam’s Furie (2019) and many others.
But in the case of Hollywood, the little action film franchise that kept chugging along in that same pathway is former stuntman/director Chad Stahelski‘s John Wick (2014). Much like the titular character, the cast and crew accomplished the little action film that could by showing focus, commitment and sheer will in the action as well as the world the story inhabits, which are things that most mainstream action films know very little about.
Now the franchise has made it to its third entry, with the cast and crew returning plus a new bunch of actors/stuntpeople, a bigger budget and more ambitious ideas for the franchise to play with. Will the film succeed on its own two feet as well as be a worthy entry of the franchise?
Continuing on right after the events of John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), Wick is on the run after after gunning down a member of the High Table — the shadowy international assassin’s guild. Saddled with a $14 million dollar bounty on his head, stripped of the protective services of the Continental and no place to go, Wick must fight his way through the streets of New York as he becomes the target of the world’s most ruthless assassins.
That is as far as the plot synopsis goes but if you are a John Wick follower or an action film fan, the plot is not the most important thing to consider, as it is simplistic as it is shopworn. But what is important to consider is whether John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is as good than the prior two entries in the trilogy in terms of what made the other two entries work in the first place: the action, Reeves’ presence and the mythology.
Thankfully, not only is John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum a great action film, but it is also the best of the trilogy. The focus, commitment and sheer will from the cast and crew are completely intact as all aspects of filmmaking are top-notch. The cinematography by returning DOP Dan Lausten is vivid and striking in how it conveys the shrouded darkness that is within Wick and how he has to tap it within in order to survive; with the many contrasting uses of bright colours.
The production design by returning designer Kevin Kavanaugh is spectacular. The world of the Continental (in both New York and Morocco) is shown in all of its glory this time, adding a sense of fantasy and mythology to the proceedings. It is all topped off with a grandiose room made entirely out of glass that is so striking, that it almost hurts to see it get destroyed when the action starts. And when it starts, it is exhilarating, brutal, fluid and absolutely jaw-dropping in its conception and execution. The fact that the sheer amount of it does not bore or negatively exhaust the audience is due to two factors.
The first factor is the variety of the action. Stahelski and screenwriter Derek Kolstad love their action cinema, and it shows in the devising of the action scenes, which go into improvised weapons fighting (eg. the use of books, knives) to gun battles mixed with complex fight choreography (i.e. the pairing of Reeves and Berry and her loyal dogs against henchmen) to chase sequences involving horses and motorcycles (in which the latter is a great nod to Jung Byung-gil‘s South Korean action flick, The Villainess ); all of them are devised (by stunt-team 87Eleven), edited (with precision by returning collaborator Evan Schiff) and lensed to intricate perfection. What may look like excessive and gratuitous overkill, the action is thankfully peppered with a dark, gallows sense of humour — how a certain antagonist survives longer than expected or how a certain foible hinders both Wick and his attacker simultaneously.
The other factor is that there is a stronger emotional through-line this time around. In the previous chapter, Wick was brought back into the game due to moral obligation rather than being driven by pure emotion. It is for that reason that the action scenes in Chapter 2 were not as thrilling as one would have hoped for. In the case of Chapter 3 – Parabellum, not only is Wick on the run for his life, he also has to face dangerous choices that bring to question whether he should keep his loyalty to the people that love him or the people that made him what he is. It may not be as strong or simplistic a through-line as in the first film, but it is something more substantial that audiences can cling on to, which lends dramatic power to the action scenes.
Speaking of dramatic power, the large cast give their very best efforts to their roles and they all lend credibility to the drama as well as the action. Returning actors Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne are fun and respectable in their screen-time while Lance Reddick gets in on the action this time, with shotguns in tow. Franchise newcomers like Anjelica Huston, Said Taghmaoui, Jason Mantzoukas and Jerome Flynn make the most out of their brief, yet colourful characterizations, yet Halle Berry stands out as Sofia, who convinces effortlessly in her action scenes and her forceful presence; and ditto to Asia Kate Dillon for being another standout as the Adjudicator, as they bring a fun, antagonistic, authoritative and wicked effort to their performances.
Of course, there’s the big
vampire man himself, Keanu Reeves. Showing no signs of slowing down whatsoever, Reeves gives a fantastically understated performance that is convincingly both fallible emotionally and infallible physically, as his character goes through the absolute wringer of a journey that spans continents. It also helps that the sparse script by Kolstad (co-written by Shay Katten, Chris Collins and Marc Abrams) lends a hint of backstory, a viewpoint into Wick’s past as well as an interesting callback to a pivotal scene in the previous chapter that Reeves is able to use.
Special credit must be given to the stuntpeople and martial artists that Reeves faces. From familiar faces like Chinese talent Tiger Chen (who has worked many times with Reeves) to Boban Marjanović (NBA player for the Philadelphia 76ers) to both Indonesian talent Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman (both known for being in The Raid films by director Gareth Evans) to Mark Dacascos as the main antagonist/John Wick fanatic, Zero (who is a good actor and a martial artist in his own right; known for films like Drive , Crying Freeman  and Brotherhood of the Wolf ), they all lend their efforts in making the action as good as it is believable.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is an action extravaganza that improves on the first two films with more ambitious action, a deeper understanding of the titular character and an illuminating look into the world of assassins, thanks to the commitment of Reeves, the varied supporting cast of thespians and stunt-people; and director Stahelski and screenwriter Kolstad’s love of action cinema.
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Cast: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Said Taghmaoui, Jerome Flynn, Jason Mantzoukas, Tobias Segal, Anjelica Huston, Ian McShane
Director: Chad Stahelski
Screenwriters: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams