John Wick vs. the Assassin Underworld in ‘Ch. 3—Parabellum’

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(2019—Director: Chad Stahelski)

— by Renard N. Bansale

High ★★★½
(out of 5 stars)

“Si vis pacem, para bellum.” — Winston (Ian McShane)

“There are rules. They are the only thing that separate us—” “—from the animals.” — The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) and Winston (Justice Smith)

Potential spoilers below

In 2014, actor Keanu Reeves was at least two decades past his breakout roles in films like Speed and the Bill & Ted series (with the third movie finally slated for August 2020) and a decade past the end of the highly-popular Matrix trilogy, and his career momentum was stalling more often than not. His last true box office hit, the 2008 remake of 1951’s The Day the Earth Stood Still, was a critical disappointment. Still, goodwill from fans and his willingness to try new projects on either side of the camera were bound to bring him to a mid-life career resurgence. That came in the form of Derek Kolstad’s screenplay about a retired contract killer out for vengeance and reuniting with Matrix stunt double Chad Stahelski, who now sat in the director’s chair.

The slick, neon, and moody John Wick may have seemed like just another revenge action thriller at first, but critics and moviegoers immediately sensed a difference (as Impacting Culture’s Joe Campbell pointed out). The action had clarity, punch, and choreographed finesse that originated in the silent era (e.g., Buster Keaton), perfected in East Asian martial arts cinema (e.g., star Jackie Chan, director John Woo), and seemingly lost since the rise of handheld “shaky cam” in works like the Paul Greengrass-directed Bourne films. The crime underworld writer Derek Kolstad introduced remains fascinating in its impressive worldwide reach and rigidity. At the center of this ballet of blood, blades, and bullets, of course, was Keanu Reeves, who at last has clinched a role to define this late-middle stage of his career.

That assessment extends into Chapter 2 and now Chapter 3—Parabellum. The fight choreography (courtesy of Jonathan Eusebio and Scott Rogers, along with director Chad Stahelski) is more polished. D.P. Dan Laustsen and editor Elísabet Ronald capture every punch and headshot. Anjelica Huston, Laurence Fishburne (the Matrix reunion continues!), and especially Ian McShane provide a classy veteran backbone to the action-packed romp. Upgraded from her underused tech operative role in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Halle Berry as Sofia leaves an impression sizable enough to perhaps warrant a future appearance or even a spinoff. Lastly, it makes me glad that Mark Dacascos, who once struggled to rise as an action star in the ‘90s before landing his signature role as the Chairman in Food Network’s Iron Chef America, has found a calling card to pave his own late mid-career path. As the assassin Zero, Dacascos delightfully plays between feigning a Japanese accent and expressing a fanboy-like admiration for John Wick via combat.

That’s not to say that the universe of John Wick has unsettled me from its beginning, with its depiction of the criminal underworld sustaining the world-at-large in a twisted sense of civility. The exchange between the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) and Winston about the rules of their world separating them “from the animals” further solidifies my discomfort with this world: Do the “animals” also include average non-criminals, lacking the capability, much less the “sophistication”, to participate in this contract killing world? Much like how Keanu Reeves’ Neo disagrees with fate due to disliking not being in control of his life, the world of John Wick disturbs me in how it arguably glamorizes the criminal underworld—perhaps even darker than the “Dark Ages” itself—as some kind of exclusive higher calling for humanity. It’s an environment that views John Wick’s short-lived grasp of retirement and romantic bliss as slight and gives righteous decisions an air of arbitrariness. It’s impossible to topple this world, even if you’re John Wick, whose legendary reputation (piling more bodies than Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees combined) can tend to dilute investment in his survival and thus render slightly tedious some of the story’s later action sequences.

The John Wick films aren’t the most extreme I’ve seen mature action cinema incline towards—my mind oddly drifts to the recent failed Hellboy reboot and its needless grisly gore. Yet this series envisioned by screenwriter Derek Kolstad, helmed by Chad Stahelski, and starring Keanu Reeves certainly adds a unique darkness that continues to warrant strong viewer discernment. I hope this franchise doesn’t extend into an eventual irrelevance, much less for its reinvigorated star and other cast members. War still desires peace in the end, ideally before forgetting what that peace was in the first place. 

(Parental Note: John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum has been rated R by the MPAA “for pervasive strong violence and some language”. It is also rated 15 by the BBFC for “strong bloody language” and “violence”, and rated O (Morally offensive) by the Catholic News Service for containing “pervasive violence, much of it gory, numerous gruesome images, and a few crude and crass expressions.”) 

(Plot Summary: Immediately following the events of Chapter 2, assassin John Wick (Keanu Reeves) takes advantage of the one-hour head start mercifully given by New York City Continental manager and longtime friend Winston (Ian McShane). Once the hour is up, John gets stripped of the criminal underworld’s protective services and a $14 million (and rising) bounty on his head activates. He must somehow reach and persuade The Director (Anjelica Huston) to give him safe passage to Casablanca. There, John hopes to redeem his bloodstained marker medallion with Sofia (Halle Berry), a former friend and now manager of the Casablanca Continental, to guide him to the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui) in the Sahara Desert. A high-ranking member of the “High Table”, the council that oversees the world’s criminal and assassin activities, the Elder has the authority to reverse John’s “excommunicado” status, though undoubtedly at a high cost.)

R.N.B.


About the Author

Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.

For more movie reviews by Renard, click here 

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