Reel Review - John Wick: Parabellum (2019)
The old Latin adage goes as such: Si vis pacem, para bellum. The English translation to that sage, old advice is, of course, “If you want peace, don’t f*** with John Wick.”
Picking up right after the events of John Wick: Chapter 2, formerly retired assassin, John Wick, goes from being the hunter to the hunted. Now officially excommunicado for the unsanctioned killing of a High Table member, John Wick must seek reinstatement from the illusive “Elder”—if every hitman from New York to Morocco doesn’t kill him first.
John Wick: Parabellum is yet another bullseye in the John Wick franchise. It’s a non-stop action thrill ride that, once again, improves upon the original formula that made the first film in the franchise such a success.
In Parabellum, director Chad Stahelski starts to take his Spaghetti Western, anime and kung fu film influences quite literally. The opening action sequence between Keanu Reeves’ John Wick and Boban Marjanovic’s Ernest in the New York Public Library is a direct call-back to the David-versus-Goliath fight scene between Bruce Lee and Kareem Abdul Jabbar in 1973’s Enter the Dragon. It’s a well-choreographed and exciting opening action sequence worthy of its inspiration—in no small part thanks to Marjanovic’s surprising duck-to-water debut as a stuntman on set.
Stahelski continues to pay homage to his influences with a few tongue-in-cheek action sequences. One of them sees John Wick riding on horseback through the streets of Manhattan while being pursued by black-helmeted motorcyclists—it’s a scene that fuses the best of both Western and Eastern action cinema in a way that only works in the John Wick world. Stahelski’s heavier hand in Parabellum could read as a brilliant director running out of ideas or suffering from franchise fatigue but he managed to keep the humour humming and the fighting fresh enough to make us believe that he’s just getting started.
The action sequences in Parabellum are more polished than they are in its predecessors with the exception, perhaps, of the tunnel scene in Chapter 2. Evidently, Reeves’ training is paying dividends and Stahelski’s directorial confidence has grown by leaps and bounds. It was particularly enjoyable watching Halle Berry join in on the head-shooting gun fu fun in a Casablanca market scene—along with her adorable assassin sidekicks.
Though it might seem like a good thing that Parabellum is sleeker than its forebearers, it does make for slightly less emotionally compelling action. Part of what makes John Wick such a compelling action hero is his sense of vulnerability. In the first film, a henchman threw him off of a nightclub balcony in the middle of one of the most memorable action sequences the franchise has delivered to date. In the second film, another henchman flipped Wick around like a rag doll before he had to pull out his gun.
It’s the fact that Wick can take a beating—and a stabbing and a shooting—as good as he can dish them out that makes audiences root for him. It’s a Die Hard kind of attitude. There’s slightly less of that in Parabellum though it might just be that we’ve seen John Wick mow through mobs of fellow assassins one too many times to believe that he’s ever in actual danger.
Parabellum’s climactic action sequence in the lobby of the New York Continental is one the series’ best for sure. Stahelski dials up the difficulty level on what would otherwise be a bunch of gun fu fodder henchmen for Reeves’ John Wick by decking them out in bullet proof armour. It’s fun to see Reeves navigate using guns as a delaying tactic so he can close the distance and land a more lethal blow. It’s a smart action sequence that makes the best possible use of the series’ distinct style of action choreography.
By the end of the final action sequence, however, it does somewhat start to feel like we’re just going through the motions. To be sure, the action choreography never lets up—the fight with “The Shinobi” is a real treat. But the “hall of mirrors” type setting is something that we’ve seen from the John Wick franchise already in Chapter 2.
Impressive as the action is—and it is probably the most impressive action in the franchise so far as it is the most ambitious—it isn’t perfect. There are a few instances where we can see stuntmen writhing around on the ground waiting for Reeves or Berry to hit their next beat. Distracting as that might be on a third or fourth viewing, it’s a small price in “believability” to pay for what is simply just stunning action choreography pulled off by dedicated actors.
The film’s supporting cast also land their blows. Halle Berry grasps the franchise’s wild swings from drama to action to comedy from her first scene and never lets go. Martial arts legend, Mark Dacascos slips right into the franchise’s comic-book-like feel with his menacingly humorous character, Zero—too bad we won’t be seeing him again. Lance Reddick as the aptly named Charon—ferryman to the underworld—gets an expanded role that he fills with glee.
Not to be outdone, cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s neon-like lighting and colouring is a fitting look for the anime-inspired franchise.
Audiences who enjoyed the first two John Wick films won’t find any fault with Parabellum—creating a trifecta of action films is the only stunt that Stahelski is pulling off these days. As Chapter 2 did for Parabellum, Parabellum has set up the next film in the franchise to pick up right where it left off—i.e., with our protagonist, John Wick, in a whole world of trouble.