Jeff York

When It Comes to Action, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” Kills It

When It Comes to Action, “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” Kills It
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Some may prefer the Jason Bourne and Taken movie franchises, but for pure, unadulterated action, there are none better these days than John Wick. The series has yielded three films so far, with the latest being John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. They’ve all been rollicking entertainments, incredibly well-made, and easy to follow. That’s especially important in the action genre where the ability for a viewer to visually grasp what’s going on is essential. Yet, it’s funny how many actioners are cut quickly to cover the limitations of the physicality of its stars. (Ahem, Matt Damon and Liam Neeson.) That’s not a problem with Keanu Reeves here. He’s clearly doing most of his own stunt work, precise in the choreography, and selling it with gusto.

This time out, Reeve’s Wick is on the run from a world of assassins and virtually the entire movie is one, extended chase sequence. The brooding hitman committed a no-no at the end of John Wick: Chapter 2 by killing a double-crossing bad guy in the Continental Hotel, a sanctuary for assassins. That forced the hotel’s proprietor Winston (Ian McShane) to declare Wick excommunicado. A bounty had to be placed on Wick’s head and sure as shootin’, hundreds of assassins, thugs, and miscreants the world over were alerted via cellphone and prepared to try to take him down.

Parabellum picks up with Wick and his dog hightailing it through a rainy Manhattan night, heading towards the New York City Library where Wick has stored some essential valuables he’ll need to escape the USA. He picks up some markers and coins to gain safe passage, but sure enough, an over-eager thug (Boban Marjanovic) has already tracked him down and soon they’re throwing down in the film’s first of numerous, intricately choreographed action set-pieces.

Halle Berry

The library fight contains all the things that have made the Wick franchise so satisfying a cineplex experience. Director Chad Stahelski stages the action so it’s easy to follow all the moves and through lines, and he ensures that the editor doesn’t do most of the work for his actors. Indeed, that’s really Reeves and Marjanovic mixing it up, and ensuring that each punch, thwack, kick, leap, and toss of a periodical looks real, not to mention, that they hurt.

From there, Wick wisely leaves his dog in the adroit care of hotel concierge Charon (the ever elegant Lance Riddick) to rush off to trade in his marker for passage out of the country from the Russian oligarch who owes him one. She is called ‘The Director’ (Anjelica Huston), and the stern, bullying woman is not only a trainer of assassins, but a ballet company bigwig. (Arguably, she’s just as mean to her dancers as she is to Wick when they kibitz.) Their banter is tough but amusing, similar to Wick’s conversations with all he encounters. Huston clearly relishes the tongue-in-cheek part, much like McShane does, and it’s one of many delightful supporting turns by stars this time out.

Even the brief conversations that occur in this film have a blunt intensity to them, similar to all of the action. Wick makes his deal and sets sail to Morocco, where he mixes it up with another big star, this time Halle Berry. She plays  Sofia, a fellow assassin who’ll become a reluctant ally due to her owing Wick a favor for saving her daughter’s life. (The Wick films have a lot of payback and debts.) Soon, the two of them, and her two attack dogs are fighting off all kinds of thugs sent by the High Table to take Wick out for running.  The four good guys battle hordes of local baddies who all want a piece of Wick, with Berry performing a lot of stunt work that must have taken up months of training. (Same with the dogs!)

Asia Kate Dillon and Lance Reddick

There is a ton of silly, even outrageous violence in this film, but it plays well without becoming too disgusting. (The earlier removal of a ballerina’s dead toenail when Wick was hobnobbing with the Russians received a more visceral reaction from the audience then any death in this film.)  Clearly, there had to be some CGI and professional stunt people mixed in doubling for Reeve and Berry in their extended sequence, but it’s hard to detect. That’s especially true in those takes where Dan Lausten’s camera lingers on the two stars for numerous beats, ensuring we see that it’s them performing Stahelski’s elaborate choreography.

The action becomes all the more impressive when Wick returns to New York and ends up in one big fracas after another. He battles assassins coming out of the woodwork for him in horse stables, on motorcycles, even while sneaking around art exhibits. It’s an incredibly physical enterprise, yet the film doesn’t skimp on character. With John Wick, his prowess as a fighter is his character. Indeed, action is character in film.

Other stars show up in vivid supporting parts, most notably Asia Kate Dillon (Billions on Showtime) as The Adjudicator, a sort of auditor for the High Table. She’s flying about and doling out punishment to those who’ve aided Wick in his escape like Winston and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne, again having a ball going big and bold in her performance.) Dillon is drolly hilarious every moment she’s onscreen, playing her part like an exasperated CPA trying to keep her tax clients honest.

Keanu Reeves

Her High Table assassins kill off almost as many as Wick, as they take out those serving Winston and the Bowery King to undermine the power of these old dogs. After a while, the deaths become a bit numbing, especially when everyone seems to get a wounding shot and then a killshot to the head, but at least, the deaths go by quickly. The carnage is helped too by the fact that Wick kills them with legitimate weapons like guns and knives, and funnier weapons too, be it a lamp or chair or a well-placed thumb.

The faces of his casualties are usually covered too, taking some of the edge of the marauding, turning such disposable characters into extras in an elaborate a video game. At times, the movie does feel like it is a first-person shooter scene that has no exit, but by and large, the action rocks and rolls along.

Thankfully, the pleasures of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum are many beyond the sheer energy of the piece and its stunt wizardry. The entire cast seems to be having a blast, with special kudos going to Mark Dacascos who makes his turn as a sushi chef moonlighting as a lethal killer into a comic highlight. The production values are first-rate as always in these pictures, with gorgeous lighting and framing that would distinguish a romantic film. And he may not get many awards for it, but the exquisite production design spearheaded by Kevin Kavanaugh rivals most Oscar winners. There may be a lot of death and destruction in the film, but at least it’s all presented like an Architectural Digest spread.

The script by Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams infuses wit at every turn, yet it abstains from too many jibes that plagued the Eastwood, Stallone, and Schwarzenegger actioners over the years. Reeve’s Wick is a man of few words, letting his actions speak volumes, and boy, do they yell from the rafters. Reeve, at 54, continues to be a marvel, performing most of the screen fights with the energy and fervor of man half his age.

One could easily call the John Wick films one of the better trilogies in the history of the movies. They know what they’re doing, and how to deliver it scene for scene, and the narrative flow can even justify the triptych. However, right when you think the franchise is concluding, they perfectly set up a fourth chapter. In an era when too many franchises lose steam after two pictures, and too much CGI renders tentpoles as little more than animated cartoons, the John Wick series continues to show the entertainment world how to do action well – in camera, breathlessly executed, and clever as hell. John Wick kills it every time.

Catch the trailer below:

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