John Wick 3, Parabellum is the latest in the unexpectedly fantastic action series. Its plot is vestigial, but the execution is outstanding. Its style is its substance.
We’ve ended up in a surprise golden age for action films. The people who grew up watching (and in some cases helping make) the dopey action films of the 80s and 90s have ended up applying their considerable talents and attention to detail to the genre, moving it forward. They’re pushing the envelope in terms of action, cinematography and the improbably very high quality of the cast who’ll be in a film entirely about shooting people in the face.
The first John Wick film, which almost definitely got funded by someone trying to cash in on Taken, ended up a surprise instant classic. It was a lean, stylish, extremely efficient revenge film. John Wick, a retired assassin, has his dog killed. He then, in return, kills everyone. In the second film, this return attracts the attention of powerful players in the world he had tried to leave behind.
The third film continues this, with players further up the food chain now trying to kill Wick.
Whatever plot you’ve imagined based on the trailers or a description of the film is probably reasonably accurate. It’s not a film particularly interested in subverting expectations or spelling out the plot. It’s interested in laying out the pieces and letting them crash into one another, while hinting at a vast backstory and mythology that it never slows down enough to explain.
After all, there are so many henchmen and assassins to kill, and only two hours of screen time to kill them in.
Like a lot of sequels, it ups the ante. It does so in a way that makes the first film (which, as I said, was an instant classic of the genre) look almost quaint. You will assume, in the first set piece, an intricate fight scene in a store that apparently sells nothing but knives, swords and axes, that the film has blown its wad, that it will do nothing to top that scene. You will be pleasantly surprised.
Through gunfights, fistfights, knife fights, car chases, horse chases, attack dogs, many, many panes of glass and endless fetishy shots of weapons, the film never stops being inventive and impressive. The precision, attention to detail, the rhythm, the clarity of shots and even the storytelling within the action scenes tops anything in the previous films, not to mention almost anything else in the genre now.
It’s a hell of a trick that, while the total body count of the film is prodigious (I look forward to the YouTube video trying to count them all) the cast have put in enough work that it never feels inevitable. Each bloody step forward is earned by the characters. It’s never mindless slaughter, but carefully constructed progress. A lot of that is down to the work Keanu Reeves and Halle Berry have put in. They make every punch, kick, throw and headshot feel completely plausible.
The story is there, and the characters are there. They’re not the focus, but they are more than good enough to hold everything together. The strange, hyper-real world of the film (where, apparently, every third person is an assassin and cops do not exist) continues to get stranger. Asia Kate Dillon’s humorless ‘Adjudicator,’ Angelica Huston’s combined dance instructor/assassin trainer (that’s a hell of a CV) Jerome Flynn’s ‘Barrada’ (I cannot even guess what accent he thought it was doing) and Marc Dacascos’ Zero, a ninja/sushi chef who is very excited to be there, join the already superb cast.
It was a great treat to see Marc Dacascos. His martial arts movie career sadly petered out as the bubble for them burst in the 90s, but he and his ninja squad absolutely steal the movie.
Lastly, of course, it looks gorgeous. Right throughout the film there are shots that could be isolated and framed. They are stunning. The cinematography is not merely functional and clear, but beautiful. It’s the closest we’ve yet got to the idea of an art-action film.
All in all, it’s superb. It pushes the envelope of action in film, it expands the world established in the first two and leaves room for more. It wears its influences on its sleeve (Jean Pierre Melville, John Woo, Suzuki Seijun and Michael Mann among others) but still feels very much like it’s own thing. The most surprisingly good action series continues to surprise in the best way.