The sun is setting on a calm New York City evening when suddenly, the camera pans to the right to reveal a world burdened by thunder and heavy rain. It’s like the opening shot of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum navigates two different dimensions: the normal, real-life one, and the cinematic, fictitious one. The director is inviting us to dive back into this neon-drenched parallel universe almost exclusively inhabited by assassins and defined by its strict set of rules that the protagonist has broken. But aside from the promised avalanche of headshots, broken necks and knife fights, what remains the most fascinating aspect of this franchise is that it seems to descend directly from the Buster Keaton school of craftsmanship on one side, and the 1980s/1990s Hong Kong idea of escalating violence on the other, with nothing in between.
What that means is that John Wick 3 is 100% a stuntman’s film, not a storyteller’s one. Everything serves only one purpose: to feed the fight machine, and that’s especially true of the mythology. Each element plays a role in creating more situations that involve fighting. This is not a critique in and of itself, but it’s just interesting that for an American production that contains numerous cinematic references (Buster Keaton appears on a Time Square sign for a split second, Wick goes to a place called the Tarkovsky theater…), it seems to skip entire decades of American action filmmaking in its retooling of the genre’s tropes, and especially the 1970s/1980s films where drama played a huge role. There is no drama in the John Wick universe. The puppy/car premise is part of the elements that trigger violence, but there is nothing at stake other than the way the set pieces will vary and innovate to keep the audience invested. We wonder: « What will they (the filmmakers) do next? » But not: « How will the characters grow/evolve? ».
In that sense, it’s a similar feeling to watching Yuen Woo-ping’s work from the 80s/90s (among countless other HK directors): the engagement happens on a purely visual/sensory level. The rest is just noise. That is not to say this type of films didn’t exist in America around the same time (Commando, anyone?), but they were neither the norm, nor the most accomplished ones technically or narratively speaking. Those that stuck with audiences beyond film buff circles (Die Hard, Lethal Weapon, Aliens, etc.) did because they combined action with elaborate character development and drama. It’s not how John McClane will kick Hans Gruber’s butt that mattered, it’s how he will save his wife and marriage.
The John Wick franchise clearly aims at making stunt choreography the main drawing force for the theatre-going experience by putting in a dizzying amount of work into it. It’s remarkable, stunning even, and one can only have a lot of respect for the people involved. The films know their birthplace is the B-movie cradle. They come from a long line of films that have never been regarded as « art », which is why Chad Stahelski’s suggestion in Chapter 2 that Wick’s killing sprees are just as worthy of admiration as historical battles was daring. It was like he was saying « You think you’re watching lowbrow exploitation cinema? Think again, bitch! » I appreciate a certain degree of ambition in the movies I watch, and even if the execution wasn’t always great, the film was trying to establish itself as a fairly unique object. That’s why so many of the shoot-outs are set in grandiose places, with overbearing music playing in the background. It’s a way of saying action doesn’t belong in the gutter. It fits right at the top of the cinematic pyramid.
The callbacks to world class genre movies run deep, and the cast is no exception. When you put Laurence Fishburne in a neon-drenched action film, you’re not only winking at Matrix (1999) fans, you’re reminding everyone that the man starred in the fucking masterpiece that was Deep Cover (1992). Same goes for Mark Dacascos, Yayan Ruhian, Cecep Arif Rahman, Tiger Chen… The film is perfectly aware of its lineage and plays with it on several occasions. With John Wick 3 however, one wonders if we’ve reached the apex of kinetic filmmaking with clean camera work. It feels like they’ve gone as far as they could in this direction, and any sequel would need to take massive risks in its filming techniques to remain interesting.
It still works well enough most of the time. The fight involving Tiger Chen (sadly underutilized) is weirdly unengaging. The shots are too static, almost inert. Thankfully it changes with the Casablanca battle involving Halle Berry, as the camera starts coming alive by following the character’s movements, hence injecting some liveliness in the mise en scène. Some set pieces look like a Johnnie To-inspired world where the characters exist apart from the normal world (the subway shootout in Chapter 2, the motorcycle chase in Chapter 3). It’s more than heightened genre fare, it’s kind of its own sub-genre altogether. And its limitations tend to show already, with the motorcycle chase bringing next to nothing new compared to the one seen in The Villainess (2017). (Not to mention the fact that the lack of traffic is still very disappointing in this scene, as it weakens its « wow factor », even though it is diegetically justified.)
This type of movie-going experience can be somewhat compared to what Quentin Tarantino did with Kill Bill (2003-2004), which is a film that works fine on an emotional level, but which main point is to stimulate the viewer’s cinematic knowledge and curiosity. The web of references and reinterpretations is what is at stake, and how the filmmaker will make them his own to offer something fresh. Not that Stahelski is as talented a director as Tarantino (he’s not), but the John Wick franchise basically rests on the same idea, except it’s exclusively focused on action tropes. It summons images from the genre to say that you’re watching an exercise in pure escalation. This is what’s at stake here: the level of virtuosity with which each action scene is crafted, and its place among the classics of the genre.
With that said, the franchise will likely remain a niche phenomenon as long as it refuses to tackle universal ideas on an emotional level, and also as long as it refuses to challenge the greats on aspects of filmmaking that aren’t purely kinetic/aesthetic. When Stahelski says he took inspiration from John Boorman’s Point Blank (1967) or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge (1970), it’s hard to find any narrative/thematic correlation. The John Wick films are unconcerned with matters such as the identity of the individual in a corporate landscape, or with complex games of morality/honour between supposedly good or bad men. They have no time for it. Their only playground is visceral, not intellectual, not thematical. Sure, John Wick 3 sort of looks like a film noir on steroids, the unrelenting action makes it kind of oneiric, and it has stretches of dialogue-free events, but the inspiration from the 1960s/1970s doesn’t seem to be anything more than visual and situational.
Of course, the charming Keanu Reeves does most of the heavy-lifting here, as he is involved in nearly all the fights scenes, and did most of his stunts himself. His level of commitment is commendable, and his physical performance remains impressive enough. There are moments however when it becomes obvious that Reeves has trouble keeping up with more accomplished martial artists, especially in his fight against the two Raid actors, where his movements start dramatically slowing down, forcing his adversaries to look much weaker than they first appeared to be. It’s a small detail, as I doubt anyone would be in any position to really complain, especially since the problem is much less glaring than in the actor’s own directorial effort Man of Tai Chi (2013) in which his final fight with Tiger Chen looked… completely unbelievable.
In terms of spectacle and absolute deference to the audience’s enjoyment, Parabellum delivers the goods. It’s trapped in its own formula so it might feel sterile at times, but at least it’s never boring. And it’s a real pleasure to see such elaborate stunts on film. It’s no Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), which has become the template for continuous flowing action sequences, but it doesn’t need to nor does it pretend to be. John Wick 3 mostly succeeds at what it sets out to achieve, and its very nature nullifies critiques about plot and characters. The latter are beautifully defined by the way they fight. Shame they never really grow. If you want a film where the camera work translates a fighter’s evolution as a human being, then Ronny Yu’s Fearless (2006) is for you. Jet Li starts off as a cocky, omnipotent-feeling martial arts master filmed with aerial shots, stable Steadicam and quick cuts. The final fight, upon which the whole film’s emotional core rests, introduces longer, shakier shots that focus on his failing body rather than low-angle deifying shots. It’s an absolute masterpiece of filmmaking regardless of genre. (Re)watch it when you’re back from Parabellum.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum
Directed by Chad Stahelski
With Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Mark Dacascos, Ian McShane