**_The franchise keeps getting better_**
>_Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum._
- Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus; _De re militari_ (4th or 5th century AD)
>_It wasn't just a puppy._
- John Wick (21st century AD)
Directed by stuntmen turned directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and written by Derek Kolstad, the original _John Wick_ (2014) was something of a sleeper hit, earning almost $90 million against a $20 million budget. The 2017 sequel, however, was a bona fide blockbuster, earning $171 million against a $40 million budget. And now we have _John Wick: Chapt__er 3 - Parabellum_, which has maintained the franchise's monetary trajectory, earning $230 million against a $75 million budget. Indeed, _Parabellum_ earned more in its opening weekend in North America ($57 million) than the original did in its entire North American theatrical run ($43 million). The three films were also critical successes, and have come to form the basis for the "Wickiverse"; an expanded universe that includes the forthcoming _Chapter 4_, a spin-off prequel film (_Ballerina_), a TV show (_The Continental_), and two video games (_John Wick Chronicles_ and _John Wick Hex_).
Not bad for a franchise that began life as a story about a guy getting revenge on the thugs who killed his puppy.
Except, of course, it wasn't just a puppy.
With Stahelski back in the director's chair for the third time, and with a script by Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Marc Abrams, as with the previous films, _Parabellum_ is built on the foundation of Sir Keanu of Reeves's zen-like stoicism, a quality he can deploy to make a violent swordfight look about as stressful as sleeping on silk linen with "Fur Elise" playing in the background and a cat gently purring on the pillow beside you. And although this third entry in the franchise does flirt with a few themes amidst the mayhem (honour, fealty, destiny), it's not trying to be something it isn't, well aware of its own identity as a completely over-the-top orgy of violence. This is a world wherein even the most innocuous of items can be rendered lethal, and where the endless deaths by gun, knife, fist, dog, horse, motorbike, sword, pencil, and book of 18th century Russian folklore, are so excessive as to transcend any possible accusations of irresponsibility or glorification of violence. In short, the film leans into its status as basically a live-action episode of _Itchy and Scratchy_. Sure, it can become a little repetitive at times, and there's next to no plot or character development, so if you want to be reductionist, you could argue that it essentially gives us more of the same, except bigger, louder, and more elaborate. But that's to ignore how aesthetically accomplished it is, how funny it is, how compelling it is, and how unapologetically entertaining it is.
Beginning only moments after _Chapter 2_ and about a week after _Chapter 1_ (it's easy to overlook the fact that the three _John Wick_ films span two or three weeks at most), _Parabellum_ opens with legendary assassin John Wick (Reeves) attempting to flee New York. Although known as the only assassin ever to have successfully retired from the Assassins' Guild, Wick was pulled back in when the puppy his dead wife Helen (Bridget Moynahan) left him was killed by Iosef Tarasov (Alfie Allen), son of powerful Bratva mobster Viggo Tarasov (the late great Michael Nyqvist). Having killed both Tarasovs, Wick's mission of vengeance ultimately led him to kill Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio), the Camorra crimelord who helped Wick retire several years prior. D'Antonio was a newly elected member of the High Table (the ruling body of the Guild, the members of which are considered off limits), and to make matters worse, Wick killed him on the grounds of the Continental Hotel (an assassins' hub in which violence is strictly prohibited). Declared "excommunicado" by the Table, and with a $14 million bounty on his head, Wick's friend and Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) gives him one hour's grace before the contract goes live.
Meanwhile, the High Table dispatch an Adjudicator (an eerily calm Asia Kate Dillon) to look into the unsanctioned help given to Wick by Winston, Continental concierge Charon (Lance Reddick), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), the leader of a group of vagrant assassins. Chiding them for helping Wick, the Adjudicator gives them seven days to either resign their positions or face the consequences. To lead the pursuit of Wick, she hires Zero (a scene-stealing Mark Dacascos), a highly-skilled assassin (and part-time sushi chef), who hates guns and is a huge fanboy of Wick. With every assassin on the planet hunting him, Wick's travels bring him into contact with a litany of underworld characters - there's The Director (Angelica Huston), a former assassin who trained Wick and who currently runs a ballet academy; Sofia (Halle Berry), the manager of the Casablanca Continental, and an old friend who owes Wick a marker after he successfully hid her daughter away from the Guild; Berrada (Jerome Flynn), the assassins' Master of Coin and a member of the High Table; The Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), the only person above the Table, and who Wick hopes may be able to clear the bounty; the Tick Tock Man (Jason Mantzoukas), an associate of the Bowery King; two of Zero's pupils (Cecep Arif Rahman and Yayan Ruhian), who insist on fighting with honour at all times; and Ernest (Boban Marjanović), a towering assassin and Dante Alighieri aficionado.
Okay, first things first, _Parabellum_ looks absolutely gorgeous. I mean really, really gorgeous. _Chapter 1_ and _Chapter 2_ both looked great, but _Parabellum_ is in another class altogether and is genuinely one of the best looking films I've seen all year. Part of the reason the film looks so good is the symbiosis between the various component parts of the aesthetic - the lush cinematography by Dan Laustsen (_Le pacte des loups_; _The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen_; _The Shape of Water_); the busy production design and complementary art direction by Kevin Kavanaugh (_The Dark Knight Rises_; _Nightcrawler_; _Only the Brave_) and Chris Shriver (_The Lovely Bones_; _The Wolf of Wall Street_; _Ocean's Eight_), respectively; the relatively slow editing by Evan Schiff (_Everly_; _Revolt_; _Proud Mary_); and the complex sound design by Martyn Zub (_Ghost in the Shell_; _Deadpool 2_; _Velvet Buzzsaw_). Everything looks and sounds amazing, working in immersive harmony to ensure the action grabs the viewer's attention and doesn't let go. The first half of the film, which takes place at night in New York, and is essentially one long almost real-time scene, is rain-soaked and bathed in glorious neon (mainly blues, greens, and reds), which reflect off the wetness on the road and bounce back towards their source, creating a dazzling display of light. When Wick nips inside a store, the vibrant colours are pulled out completely, with the brown of the store's walls and cabinets coming to dominate, so when he heads back outside, the richness of the palette really pops. The Moroccan section of the film is predominately gold, brown, and yellow, creating a sense of serenity that contrasts nicely with the hyperactive tone of the New York scenes which surround it.
In terms of the action, the film's opening scene sets the bar insanely high – a deadly fight in a library. The visceral brutality of this scene is emphasised both visually and aurally; when someone gets slammed against a wall or has a hardback book driven into their skull, you really feel the thump on the soundtrack, whilst the close-quarters nature of the combat makes for interesting shot compositions and editing rhythms (as does the fact that Wick is fighting someone over a foot taller than himself). The nature of the fight also leads to some inventive uses of the _mise en scène_, as the combatants are forced to improvise.
In this sense, I was reminded very much of Gareth Evans's _The Raid_ and _The Raid 2_, (the presence of Rahman and Ruhian, who played villains in the first _Raid_ film, cannot be a coincidence). These two films effectively redefined action cinema by shunning the frenetic editing that had become the norm over the previous decade, instead employing longer takes that showcased the performers' physicality. You know that seizure-inducing scene in Pierre Morel's _Taken_ (2008) when Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) jumps a fence, and there are literally 15 cuts in five seconds? There's none of that in _Parabellum_, with the editing altogether calmer, allowing the audience to focus on the organic progression of the ballet-like hand-to-hand combat, creating what can only be described as a symphony of excessive violence. With Jonathan Eusebio's magnificent choreography paying homage to everyone from Harold Lloyd to Buster Keaton to Andrei Tarkovsky (seriously), _Parabellum_ doesn't just give us rote action scenes, it gives us immersive works of performance art.
However, to say that the editing is rhythmic and slower than most action movies is not to say that the film is laid back. It isn't, and it includes any number of scenes that really shouldn't work, so batshit insane are they. There's the initial library fight where books become as deadly as knives; a scrap that takes place in an antique knife shop, where Wick and his opponents only realise that they're surrounded by literally hundreds of knives when they run out of ammo; a horse versus motorbike gauntlet (with swords) on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge that has more than a passing resemblance to a similar scene in Jung Byung-gil's magisterial _Aknyeo_ (2017); an aborted confrontation in Grand Central Terminal (damn girl scouts); a huge to-do in a Moroccan bizarre involving two people and two dogs against a legion of hired thugs; an old-fashioned shootout in the Continental as Wick and Charon face down the Adjudicator's team; and a climactic gunfight cum sword fight in a room made entirely of glass. Subtle it isn't. Entertaining it most certainly is. And the fact that the film can pull off such ludicrous scenes without becoming a parody of itself is as good a testament to the craft on display as anything could be.
Both previous _Wick_ films have been said to resemble video games in their visual design, although Stahelski has stated that this wasn't a conscious decision, as he has never played a video game. Conscious or not, _Parabellum_ is even more indebted to video games than the previous films, not just in its aesthetic, but in some of its narrative beats. For example, each fight is harder than the last (i.e., the difficulty level is increasing), with a few boss fights thrown in for good measure. A scene in a stable where Wick uses a horse to take out two thugs is essentially an environmental assassination straight out of the _Hitman_ franchise (and Wick dresses a lot like Agent 47 too). There's a single driving level (there's always a single driving level), and a non-combat level where Wick must reach his destination before dehydrating. To make it to the final battle, Wick must face down a platoon of heavily armoured soldiers, each of whom requires multiple hits before going down, whilst Wick himself has to pause at one point for a weapon upgrade. Then we have a mini-boss fight, followed by the real boss fight against Zero. The narrative is literally structured like a video game, and has a similarly insane kill ratio to the previous films (he killed around 80 in _Chapter 1_, about 130 in _Chapter 2_, and 94 in _Parabellum_). And this is not a criticism. On the contrary, part of the film's charm is its resemblance to a violent, hyper-stylized, morally questionable video game in which one must kill waves of faceless opponents à la _Doom_ (1993), _Manhunt_ (2003), or _Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas_ (2004).
In terms of the acting, a good way to approach it is to ask, who looks at a library book and thinks, "_I could kill someone with this_"? The answer, of course, is John Wick. And the fact that we go along with such insanity is a testament to both the film itself and Reeves's performance, which grounds even the most ridiculous of scenes, taking everything in his stride as if it's the most normal thing in the world. His serene monotone delivery is also responsible for easily the funniest moment of the franchise thus far. When a thug shoots one of Sofia's dogs (don't worry, it's a non-fatal hit), she goes ballistic, laying waste to everyone around her, despite knowing that there could be serious consequences. Looking at Wick, she points out, by way of explanation/apology, "_he shot my dog_." To which Wick replies, in that half-asleep and still stoned from the night before surfer-dude voice of Keanu Reeves, "_I get it_". That line prompted a few people to applaud at the screening I attended. Of course he gets it. And so do we.
One of the reasons the original film stood out so much was the subtle brilliance of Kolstad's world-building. It wasn't just a movie about a former assassin being pulled back into the trade. Instead, Kolstad created a fascinating underworld featuring an international Assassin's Guild, a hotel for assassins in which violence is prohibited, and even an assassins' currency. In _Chapter 2_, he expanded this further, introducing the person who helped Wick retire, the High Table as the governing body of the Guild, blood markers, and the Bowery King, who seems to operate slightly outside the purview of the Table. _Parabellum_ continues the expansion, introducing the person who trained Wick, the ballet school, the master of coin, the Elder, the adjudication process, excommunication, and deconsecration (when a hub such as the Continental is declared no longer a safe space and no longer protected by the Table). The mythology has deepened with each film, and the fact that it has so many religious overtones drives home the sense of old-world ideologies being applied to people who must be ultra-modern in how they conduct themselves.
Are there some problems? Well, any film this violent is going to have immediate detractors, who will oftentimes speak out against the film without actually seeing it, and of course, there will be cries of "_Hollywood preaches against the 2nd Amendment but then makes movies celebrating the destructive power of guns_." Fair point. But the thing is, the movie doesn't take itself too seriously, nor does it expect the audience to, so the question of its irresponsibility when it comes to violence is kind of a moot point. Of course it's irresponsibly violent. It's supposed to be irresponsibly violent. Does it treat guns and knives fetishistically? Yes, to a certain extent it does. But is it celebrating guns and violence in a realistic socio-political manner? No, not in the slightest.
Having said that, there is a sense in which the violence in the film does come across as meaningless, insofar as it doesn't seem to have any practical ramifications for any of the main characters. John Wick has literally killed over 300 people in the course of a few weeks, but there's not a hint of any kind of psychological consequence. Related to the disassociation that presenting violence like this can have, there's the problem that simply by virtue of logistics, almost all of Wick's opponents are nameless and faceless extras, anonymous hordes there to be killed. Indeed, at one point, Wick is literally pursued by two busloads of such villains (a bit of meta-commentary on the genre, which I personally thought was hilarious). The one criticism that I would definitely echo is that the structure of the narrative is a little awkward, and on several occasions, actions and decisions reached over the course of multiple scenes are simply undone just a couple of scenes later. However, this is a _John Wick_ film, not a Marcel Proust novel. The narrative structure is not really where your attention is supposed to be.
Generally speaking, I don't do blockbusters. I just don't like them, and can rarely get anything from them. I consider the medium of film to be an art form before it is entertainment, and I approach every film from that perspective. But attempting to parse a summer blockbuster in this manner doesn't tend to yield much in the way of interesting analysis. Nevertheless, every year, there are one or two blockbusters that I will go to see. The first such example this year is _John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum_. And I absolutely loved it. Easily the best in the franchise thus far, it's more ambitious, more ridiculous, more violent, and more entertaining than its predecessors. It's also funnier, and the Wickiverse continues to provide a fascinating _milieu_. Sure, themes such as fealty, honour, fate, and religion come and go without much engagement. But, as I've said, that's not what the film is about. It simply doesn't follow the rubric to which others must try to adhere - character development and motivation, a well-structured plot, insightful dialogue, and thematic undercurrents. Instead, Stahelski has crafted an action film that features extraordinary aesthetic elements and a wonderfully vibrant visual design. _Parabellum_ doesn't just unapologetically revel in its excessive violence. It makes art out of its excessive violence.