Parabellum means “prepare for war”—and war is what you get in the third instalment of the John Wick franchise. This action-packed, balls-to-the-wall pistol opera doesn’t give the audience a moment to breathe.
Seriously, if you dare to blink, you might miss a bullet or a kick to the face. Director Chad Stahelski understands how to shoot, stage, and frame fight choreography, and that has everything to do with him being a former stuntman. Partnered with Keanu Reeves, the reigning king of action cinema, and returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad (who co-wrote this instalment with Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams), Stahelski delivers, upping the ante by widening the scope of the assassins network, in addition to emphasising how the consequences of Wick’s actions from John Wick: Chapter 2 have rippled around the world.
In John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum, John is now an excommunicated assassin with a $US14 ($20) million bounty on his head. This is the result of breaking the rules by killing a member of the high table in the Continental (a hotel that’s considered assassin neutral ground). Now he’s running amok in New York, looking for sanctuary and still trying to avoid being murdered. That’s a hard task in a city rife with trained killers looking to take him down and win the ransom.
Things escalate with the arrival of a high table representative referred to as the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who is sent to remind everyone who helped John Wick survive that they must pay penance. Winston (Ian Mcshane), head of the Continental New York, risks losing his position; the King of the Bowery (Lawrence Fishburne) risks losing his turf; and the Director (Anjelica Houston) risks losing her empire. Looking to get rid of Wick for good, the Adjudicator hires a band of specialised assassins led by Zero (Mark Dacascos) to enforce the rule that excommunicated killers are not to be helped, and the price for doing so could be a life or limb.
With the entrance of the Adjudicator, the audience is also introduced to the expanded John Wick universe where we find out more about his past and the hierarchy of the high table. Always one step ahead of everyone else, Wick outruns the high table into the house of Sofia (Halle Berry), who is head of the Continental in Morocco. She isn’t happy about their reunion, but then later decides to help him after he calls in a debt. What ensues is complete madness as Wick aims to get back in favour with members of the high table and kill anyone who gets in his way.
While the lore of this assassins’ hierarchy is intriguing, the film isn’t hung up on the mythology for too long; despite that, it is still genius world building, because it doesn’t require too much brain power to understand what’s going on. The simplicity of the story makes it easy to digest even if you haven’t seen the first two films. The plot gets just enough lore to move the movie forward at a rapid speed and the pacing is a testament to how self-aware the franchise is. Kolstad knows to keep the focus on the action but mixes it with a bit of humour for levity.
Reeves is committed to this role. He excels in this genre because of his willingness to push his body to the limit in the name of authenticity. The past two films featured full, lush images rather than cross-cut close-ups, but here there are little to no editing cuts in fight scenes—the camera lingers on Reeve’s face to enhance the realism. Parabellum uses tight frames that make each fight appear as if you were standing right in front of the action with no way to escape. This in no way hinders the graceful, limber, almost balletic movements of each fight, which are aided by Stahelski’s sense of timing and movement.
While Parabellum is all about John, it is Halle Berry as Sofia who steals the show. Behind the scenes footage of Berry in training shows her handling multiple weapons, but of course, that’s not the same as seeing it portrayed in the film. Trust, she does not disappoint. This isn’t her first action film role (most recently, she co-starred in Kingsman: The Golden Circle), but nothing compares to the raw intensity she brings to this role. She’s tailor-made for this, so why hasn’t anyone offered her a role as meaty before? There is something about working with the intense Reeves that encourages his co-stars to achieve the same type of legitimacy because there is no stunt double in sight. Berry delivers every kick and punch, and pulls every trigger, and is a much-needed addition to this testosterone-fest—and at this juncture, the Wick universe could use more women kicking arse.
The only worry is which direction will it go from here? The films are highly entertaining, but the plots have become more flimsy and uninteresting. It gives me flashbacks of Fast and Furious. As the franchise continued to release films, they became more ridiculous and unrealistic. What’s consistently fascinating about John Wick as a character, though, is the confidence he has to keep making decisions he knows will plunge him further into danger. Not to mention that he has enough energy to keep going. He’ll need it because by the end of Parabellum, the stakes are higher than ever before. Considering that, it’s valid to wonder how Kolstad will keep the plot within the realm of realism without going overboard as the franchise goes on.
As successful as John Wick has become—it started out as a studio gamble that paid off tenfold—the Batman-esque top tier assassin shows no signs of slowing down. The movies are a needed release from the regular Hollywood slate that’s co-dependent on CGI and choppy action sequences. The real hard-hitting action of the John Wick franchise is what makes all three films such a thrill to watch. There are no gimmicks, no gags, no tricks, just bodies and bullets.
John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum is out May 16.