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Non-Review Review: John Wick – Chapter III: Parabellum

The biggest issue with John Wick: Chapter III – Parabellum is that it lacks an ending.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with an ambiguous or open-ended film. Indeed, a large part of the thrill of John Wick: Chapter II was the extent to which it fudged such boundaries. Despite the fact that John Wick offered something of a satisfying conclusion, the sequel picked up mere moments later to offer a coda that audiences never realised was needed. The ending of the first sequel bled (both literally) into the one that would follow. Open-endedness is not an issue of itself.

“So John Wick flees on horseback, the assassin’s after them on a motorcycle and it’s like a battle between motors and horses, like technology versus horse.”

After all, Chapter II belonged to the now-familiar family of “second films in trilogies.” Traditionally, the first film in a series would be relatively self-contained, with a broad teasing ending at best that could provide closure if the box office numbers didn’t work; Star WarsBack to the Future. In contrast, after those movies were box office hits, sequels were often commissioned in batches of two; Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back bleeds more obviously into Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, Back to the Future II bleeds into Back to the Future III.

However, there tended to be an understanding that closure was necessary at some point. Not necessarily in a definitive or conclusive manner for the series as a whole; Return of the Jedi is not the last Star Wars movie. However, a sense that the single narrative being tidied up. The characters’ journeys may not be completed, but their arc within this particular story is complete. Parabellum feels very much like a cheat on this front. Although building from a premise with a clear ending, it seems to be awkwardly constructing a perpetual motion device.

Shattering expectations.

After all, John Wick’s journey has a clear end point. The character arc that began in John Wick has any number of potential resolutions. Chapter II seemed to offer some clear linear progress to that journey, taking the character from his position in the closing moments of John Wick and escalating the existential stakes significantly. The single biggest problem with Parabellum is that the film doesn’t manage a comparable transformation. Wick’s situation doesn’t seem particularly different between the beginning and the end of the film. At most, the character has run a closed loop.

This is a shame, as that is a lot to like in Parabellum. As with both John Wick and Chapter II, this is a visually stunning film. It is saturated with neon glows of reds and blues, mingling and reflecting into beautiful purples on grimy streets and immaculate sterile sets. The stunt choreography is breathtaking, and a testament to an underappreciated artform, ballet with blades and bullets. Indeed, Parabellum even improves upon the already enchanting heightened operatic (and gloriously melodramatic) storytelling of John Wick and Chapter II, weaving them into an engaging parable.

Getting their just deserts.

The John Wick films are striking as an example of an original intellectual property in a world that increasingly leans on established brands; in fact, the biggest threats facing Parabellum at the box office are Avengers: Endgame and Detective Pikachu, both built from concepts ported over from other media. The John Wick franchise has a strange texture. Its world is so developed and so detailed that it feels almost of a piece with these works, even though it has been developed entirely from the ground up.

Indeed, it might be tempting to lay the blame for the structural weaknesses of Parabellum at the feet of modern blockbusters. Although Chapter II felt very much like the old-fashioned “second film in an originally unplanned trilogy” like The Empire Strikes Back or Back to the Future II, it is noteworthy that Parabellum feels a lot more like a contemporary franchise picture. It is a film designed to reach a point where it might serve as a springboard to even more films, with little regard for its own internal narrative cohesion.

Parabellum is notable for including the first characters in a John Wick film that feel like they might support their own spin-off. There is a sizable stretch in the middle of the film that teams John Wick up with an old acquaintance in Casablanca, named Sofia. Sofia is played by Oscar-winner Halle Berry, and has a mysterious and ambiguous history with John that suggests a complicated push-and-pull dynamic that is never fully articulated. Sofia is notably removed from the narrative at a relatively early point, as if the film is consciously teasing the audience with her introduction.

Similar, Parabellum feels a lot more precious with its ensemble than either John Wick or Chapter II, a lot more careful playing with the toys that it has inherited. The John Wick movies focus on a retired assassin, and so it makes sense that they are rather bloodthirsty. The eponymous hitman kills almost ever major character in John Wick aside from Winston, Aurelio and Charon. Even Chapter II is fairly bloodthirsty with its new characters, killing off supporting cast members played by Riccardo Scamarcio, Ruby Rose, Common and Claudia Gerini.

Every dog has its day.

In contrast, Parabellum feels like it is afraid to part with any characters that might potentially by of use in later films in the franchise. The film shies away from killing off returning stars, despite one particularly shameless fake-out. However, it also introduces a number of developed supporting antagonists who are allowed to carry on over without any real damage. It would be a spoiler to list names here, but Wick confines a lot of his killing in Parabellum to dozens of minor and tangential characters rather than those of actual narrative import.

This feels like a conscious franchisification of John Wick, even beyond the extension of the premise of Chapter II. At the very least, Chapter II felt like a self-contained entity containing a whole story; in Chapter II, John Wick found himself facing the consequences of returning to the life of an assassin in John Wick and confronting the possibility that he may never be able to escape the underworld. It was just a deepening and literalisation of the central idea that drove John Wick, but it felt like a clear statement. Instead, Parabellum feels like it runs largely in place.

This is clear from the outset. The ending of Chapter II found Wick retrieving his dog from Charon, the concierge at the Continental Hotel. The closing scenes of Chapter II found Wick limping through New York without a friend in the world, and only his dog for company. It was a striking, evocative image; a hitman and a dog. However, early in Parabellum, Wick returns his dog to Charon at the Continental. This is a logical, pragmatic decision; the film’s early action scenes are complicated enough without involving Wick’s dog. However, it feels like a metaphor for the film’s story itself. Nothing goes anywhere, it all comes back.

This is disappointing. After all, the plot should be the least important and distracting aspect of a John Wick movie. These filmsa re largely showcases for craft, and Parabellum succeeds fantastically on that count. Parabellum looks absolutely beautiful, as if it is unfolding in a world that exists just slightly later than midnight and out of step with the regular world. Parabellum unfolds in familiar urban surroundings, with director Chad Stahelski using New York City as an metropolitan wonderland drenched in deep blues and sharp reds.

Picture this.

Dan Laustsen’s cinematography is striking, particularly given how much of Parabellum is shot to emphasise both reflection and refraction. The melodramatic preoccupation with theme is one of the most endearing aspects of the John Wick series, permeating every layer of its filmmaking. The use of light bent through rain or bouncing off glass feels like an extension of this idea, a reminder of the slightly askew world in which Wick operates. It is just a quick dodge to the left. (At one point, a brutal fight scene occurs in Grand Central Station, through an oblivious crowd of commuters.)

There are moments when Parabellum feels like it has been reconstructed from fevered imaginings. Moments in the film play better as images than as story beats, to the point that Parabellum feels almost more like a montage than a narrative. The images come quick and fast: John Wick on horseback in New York City, John Wick climbing a gigantic sand dune in the Sahara, John Wick wrestling with another twisted reflection of his younger self in a room full of glass as a monitor projects a giant ticking watch behind him. It is beautiful.

This heightened quality is reflected in the casting and performances. Parabellum adds a number of new characters to the ensemble, including Saïd Taghmaoui and Jason Mantzoukas. However, it is telling how many new castmembers are tasked with ridiculously over-the-top accents; Asia Kate Dillon plays a Briton, Anjelica Huston plays a Russian, Jerome Flynn plays an Italian. The accents are broad and cartoonish, but that is the charm. The world of John Wick has an outlandish and absurdist quality, built as it is upon performance.

After all, the John Wick films are built consciously as showcases for physical stunt work. The plot is almost incidental, and the world-building is a scoop of vanilla ice-cream on the side. As with Chapter II, the opening scenes of Parabellum make a point to include a shot of The General playing on the streets of New York City. The film clearly sees itself as a spiritual successor to the work of Buster Keaton, slapstick with swords and vaudeville with vehicular manslaughter.

Dial canine-one-one.

Parabellum is not subtle about this, and that is a large part of the film’s charm. On the run from the assassins who ex-communicated him in the previous film, Wick seeks refuge at what appears to be an assassin training academy, implied to be where Wick honed his trade. The school is also run by “the Director”, who doubles as a dance instructor. She teaches ballet, which is presented as a grotesquely challenging physical art form, handily juxtaposed with both Wick’s own trade and the stunts driving the film. “Art is pain,” the teacher states as the watch dancers deal with the trauma.

Parabellum reinforces this comparison a number of times, most notably when the school finds itself under attack by a group of trained killers. They strike in rhythm with the music, intercut with the dance on stage. Eventually, they emerge on the stage themselves, as if announcing themselves as performers. In any other franchise, this might be the very definition of “too much.” However, the universe of John Wick is built on such symbolism and literalism; a large part of the climax of Chapter II involved a rampage through an art gallery. It fits beautifully.

The action choreography in Parabellum is as breathtaking as it was in both John Wick and Chapter II. In particularly, the opening act is a rollercoaster thrill ride that puts Wick through a gauntlet of fantastically improvised murder; a showdown at a library, a battle in a stable. The film loses a bit of momentum in its second act, but it is never less than impressive; a motorcycle chase with samurai swords, a brawl through a glass maze. The film has an endearing commitment to mayhem; highlights include a knife-fight with very finite ammunition.

However, the most striking aspect of Parabellum is the extent to which it actually thematic expands its world-building in engagingly abstract direction. It wouldn’t be unfair to describe John Wick and Chapter II as being “pretentious”, although there was always a charm in how eagerly those films embraced melodrama and opera as a narrative mode for a story about a hitman avenging his beloved dog. The thematic arcs of John Wick and Chapter II were very simple; is Wick effectively doomed to be stuck in a cycle of violence. This carries over to Parabellum as well.

John Wick, burnt out assassin.

That said, Parabellum finds interesting things to say about the film’s underworld of assassins and dealers. John Wick and Chapter II layered an entire world on top of the mundane, occupied by a homeless army and congregating in a hotel for assassins. There was something of The Matrix about this, something of a bizarre blend of mundane urban fantasy with kick-ass eighties action movie. It gave the films an aesthetic that was unique enough that works like Hotel Artemus could be classified as companion pieces.

Parabellum uses this world of archaic rituals and ambiguous religious imagery as a metaphor, developing on the implied subtext of John Wick and Chapter II. Both John Wick and Chapter II suggested that rules were structures by which societies organised themselves. “Rules are what separate us from the animals,” Winston repeatedly boasts over the series. There is an obvious and compelling contrast with the layering of this hyper-civilised structure over the brutality of assassination and murder.

Parabellum develops this theme in interesting directions, focusing on the idea of this underworld as a literalisation of “the social contract” and “the commercialisation of relationships.” There is a sense in which the hyper-ordered and organised world of the assassins, with its carefully codified rules, exists in contrast with the chaos of the outside world. There is perhaps a reason that these rules were emphasised increasingly in both Chapter II and Parabellum, as the outside world witnessed the public erosion of social norms and structures.

Parabellum more explicitly mirrors the clarity of these structures with the confusing nature of human existence. There is an existential sting to Parabellum. When Wick has the luxuries of “the social contract” revoked from him, when he can no longer count on the “services” of his underground society, he is forced to retreat back to a more primitive set of social structures. As Parabellum develops, Wick finds himself stripped of the safety that larger society offers and relying upon a more personal network of connections.

Winston, loseston.

Wick is forced to find allies with a more personal connection to him. When he shows up at the academy, he warns the Director that being free of social obligations to him does not mean that she has no personal obligation. “You have a debt,” he reminds her. “And I am owed.” Similarly, when Wick crosses paths with Sofia, he is forced to rely on their old relationship – literalised through a blood-bound “marker” – to enlist her assistance. The boundaries between social and personal relationships blur; is Winston is more than just a professional companion to Wick, is he “a friend”?

The climax of Parabellum features an extended sequence set in a room made of glass; there are wall panels, installations, even a second level floor. Repeatedly, characters emphasise how transparent and almost invisible these objects are; characters walk into (or are thrown through) panels that they did not realise were there. The metaphor is rich and evocative. It is no coincidence that Wick must carefully navigate that space in order to reach Winston; unsure what exactly the details of their relationships are.

The room of glass feels like a commentary on these structures and relationships, on the supports that both hold people together and keep them apart. One of the smartest action movie gags in Parabellum is the fact that this glass is not as easy to shatter as glass often is in action movies. Sure, the glass can be broken with enough force and momentum, but more than once it remains intact despite gunshots and impacts. The glass panes are like those relationships and those structures; they may be invisible and they can be broken, but they are stronger than they seem.

In its more philosophical moments, Parabellum feels like a meditation on what people owe to one another, and how difficult it can be to navigate this. One source of information demands a gift in return for his assistance. Another figure insists upon a sacrifice as a gesture of good faith. “I have served and I will be of service,” characters repeat over the course of the film, suggesting that all that the world of Parabellum has done is to codify and commodify complicated human interactions by reducing the ambiguity and offering clarity instead.

Dogged pursuit of his goals.

As such, the world of John Wick becomes surprisingly and engagingly simple, despite its ever-expanding complexity and sophistication. As with so much about John Wick, it is simply about articulating what might otherwise be left implied or suggested. In a world where nothing much seems to make sense any more, where social conventions seem to be eroded and were nothing is concrete, the fantasy world of John Wick is almost appealing. It is a world where everybody knows immediately and clearly what they owe to one another.

Parabellum is a fascinating film, until it isn’t. The film is remarkably well put together, but feels frustratingly unfinished. Every aspect of the film is meticulously constructed, except for the engine that is supposed to be driving it. Parabellum often seems like it is stuck spinning its wheels, even if the view is fantastic.

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