I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Tick, tock, Mr. Wick.”
When last we left unhappily unretired professional killer John Wick (modern noir god Keanu Reeves: Destination Wedding, A Happening of Monumental Proportions), he had just been given a one-hour head-start on his excommunication from the global assassins’ guild he is a member of, along with the laying of a contract on his life that will be too big for anyone to let pass. He was in big trouble.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (“prepare for war”) picks up right there as Wick limp-runs around a neon-slicked New York City nighttime downpour in that final hour, chasing down some macguffins that might help him survive this. He was injured in that last bust-up in Chapter 2, the one that has gotten him exiled. So he’s starting out already beaten up and not in optimal shape, and he needs all the help he can get if he’s gonna make it out of this alive. But wait: Will he make it out alive? Is this gonna be one of those movies where the “happy” ending, or at least the most dramatically satisfying one, will be the one where the hero dies? It doesn’t seem unlikely at all, and it lends a frisson of looming antiheroic tragedy to everything we endure here.
And what a ride it is! Even before Wick’s 60-minute reprieve is up, he is fending off colleagues overeager to collect the bounty on him. And once the countdown is over: oof. New York City is suddenly ground zero for an all-out assassins’ war, one man versus everyone else. (As someone who knows John well notes wryly, the odds are about even, then.) Chapter 3 kicks off with a badass bang of gasp-inducing, exhausting, inventive violence: kinetic, balletic, even witty. The hand-to-hand combat sequences are often up-close-and-personal squicky and meaty and mushy, gross but also intimate in a way that is the opposite of the cartoonish bloodlessness that characterizes the typical tedious action movie the Wick saga has put to shame. Even when it’s random anonymous minions Wick is dispatching, you don’t forget that they’re people. And yet it’s also like physical comedy, lethal Harold Lloyd versus deadly Charlie Chaplin, on steroids and painkillers, even when it’s not funny — though sometimes it is.
Parabellum is a veritable symphony of violence, and after that slam-bang opening sonata comes a slow movement, ringing with dark notes. (Later comes Wick’s minuet with another assassin, Sofia [Halle Berry: Kingsman: The Golden Circle, X-Men: Days of Future Past], who owes him a favor sealed in blood, against their world. She’s a dog lover, as John is. If you think the stunts with human actors are gripping, wait till you meet Sofia’s dogs.) In the slow movements — there’s another later, a much needed rest for us, as well as for Wick — the film indulges in expanding the glorious, subtle worldbuilding its predecessors began sketching. (But not expanding it too much. Even at the end, there remains so much tantalizing room to explore.)
This is not our reality but an ever-so-slightly fantasy-adjacent alt, one in which the retro funky and the sleekly modern sit comfortably next to each other, but also — much more importantly — one in which there appears to be a degree of order and honor among a profoundly interwoven and interconnected criminal underworld that would be comforting to imagine actually existed. (Absolutely stealing the movie, even from the rivetingly charismatic Reeves: Asia Kate Dillon as The Adjudicator, from the guild’s ruling High Table, arriving to pass judgment on all the rule-breaking that has been going on. OMG, give them their own movie, now.) I suspect this is part of the appeal of this fictional universe; maybe the reason why civilians here barely seem to notice all the ol’ ultraviolence happening around them is because they know — either consciously or just as a matter of the cultural social contract — that it will not impact them. (Social contracts, spoken and unspoken, discussed and assumed, are a matter of great import here.)
But then, Parabellum is about the sham, sometimes, of the seeming orderliness of the world, of any world. John’s crime, the one that got him declared excommunicado, is the act in which he killed a fellow guild member at New York’s Continental, which is not just a hotel and social club for guild members, but also safe-space neutral ground where no guild member can be harmed by another. But the man he killed had transgressed the rules (in Chapter 2) in a way far more muted, in a way that could never be proven to be a transgression. Chapter 3 is, as its predecessors were, a vigilante movie… but in a way like never before, this vigilante truly has no authentic approved recourse: neither the legal nor pseudolegal structures he exists and operates within will recognize the rightness of his actions. They literally cannot recognize justice, in this instance, it’s so alien to their bureaucracy.
This will be a recurring motif throughout Chapter 3: “There are rules and there are consequences.” But what happens when the rules and the seeming sense of order protect, even if unwittingly, those who act in bad faith? What happens when order masks chaos and injustice?
There’s a reason why the John Wick movies are resonating today, and it goes beyond the pure cinematic pinnacle of its beautifully choreographed action and its weary tenacity in the face of adversity. Even beyond the utter embodiment in stolid Keanu Reeves as the phlegmatic voice of a burnt-out generation. It’s about the sense that the authority and the institutions we have perceived as reliable and in charge are letting us down not out of any outright fault of their own (or maybe so, too) but because they simply don’t work anymore. Maybe never did… but now we see it. This is, I think, a profound reflection of our times, one we are just beginning to wake up to.
• John Wick movie review: deadly dancing