Monday, August 26, 2019

"John Wick, Chapter 3: Parabellum": review

Si vis pacem, para bellum.
If you want peace, prepare for war.
—De Re Militari

When last we left John Wick, the unkillable killer (reviews for the previous two movies are here and here), he was running from, well, everyone: the entire assassin underworld was about to try to kill Wick for $14 million because he had been deemed "Excommunicado"—fair game without shelter or harbor—by the High Table, the ultimate authority for all assassins in this universe. Running through the streets of New York City with his dog by his side, Wick knew that the single hour's head start he had received from Winston, the manager of the New York Continental (Ian McShane), would be running out soon.

And that's where 2019's "John Wick, Chapter 3: Parabellum" begins: with Wick's lone hour ticking down while he runs raggedly through the streets of NYC. The obvious question presents itself: when you've established, in your second movie, that the world is actually full of professional assassins, how do you show one man's struggle to survive pursuit by virtually everyone? Equally obvious—and this shouldn't count as a spoiler—is that Wick will survive this ordeal, which means the viewer's interest isn't in whether he survives but in how he survives. Without giving too much away, I can say that Wick gets by with a little help from his friends—or at least from certain acquaintances who owe him favors. The movie, thankfully, takes time to explore Wick's motivation for survival: why would a man who has lost his wife and dog—the only beings he ever loved—want to go on? The answer Wick provides to the characters who ask this question is an interesting one, and I won't reveal it here.

So "Parabellum" is much more of a chase movie than a revenge drama, which puts it in the same ballpark as Mel Gibson's "Apocalypto," a story about a young and capable warrior who must survive the wrath of an entire rival tribe. The plot takes Wick from New York City to Morocco, with Wick leaving a trail of blood along the way. Wick meets up with Sofia (Halle Berry), the manager of the Casablanca Continental, calling on a favor she owes him. Sofia and her highly trained German shepherds launch into action alongside Wick for some lovely fight sequences, then Wick must travel alone through the desert in search of the Elder (Saïd Taghmaoui), the mysterious head of the High Table. As Wick learns, you don't find the Elder; he finds you if he so wishes. This is all very spooky and magical, but it's consistent with the weird world-building accomplished in the previous two films. Eventually, Wick ends up back in New York with a mission he is unwilling to see through to its end, and this leads to the story's final conflict and quasi-resolution.

It might be best to think of "Parabellum" as a species of 1980s porn, back when porn movies actually had stories that tied the sex scenes together into something like a narrative. In that sort of porn, the narrative was merely an excuse to drive us from one fuck to another; in "Parabellum," there's a much better narrative propelling us forward, but it's still ultimately just an excuse for us to see some gonzo gunplay and martial arts. Fans of fight choreography, like yours truly, will gobble this sort of action up; people who are more interested in the finer points of story and character will quickly grow weary of watching John Wick double-tap, judo-flip, or aikido-cripple yet another bad guy. Most of what you see Wick do in this third installment will be familiar to you; it's Halle Berry and her dogs, however, who bring something new to the table.

Sofia is presented to us as world-weary, cautious, wise, and passionate. She has a daughter, whom Wick helped years ago (that's the favor she owes Wick), and she appreciates the nearly sacred duty with which she has been charged as the head of one of the many Continental hotels-for-assassins scattered across the globe. Sofia's two faithful companions are her German shepherds, and when she commands them to attack, they go straight for the balls. The dogs used in this movie apparently trained almost exclusively with Berry in order to establish an instant rapport; they do indeed respond to her commands with uncanny celerity. In one scene, a dog pulls a Spider-Man, leaping onto a prone person's back before wall-running vertically upward to attack an enemy on a fortress's parapet. It's the most awesome stunt in the movie, and I howled appreciatively. Sofia herself is portrayed as vicious when it comes to physical combat, but the fight choreographer kept her moves realistic: unlike so many badass female characters these days, Sofia's fighting technique doesn't involve brute force; it's more in the neighborhood of aikido/hapkido/jujitsu—holds, joint locks, and throws, usually followed by double-taps to the head and/or chest.

The world of this movie is peopled with memorable characters. Continental concierge Charon (Lance Reddick), a calm and professional presence from the two previous movies, gets a few action scenes himself this time around when the Continental is "deconsecrated" by the High Table's Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), and the High Table sends heavily armored troops in to purge the entire building. Charon proves quite handy with a shotgun and armor-piercing rounds. Ian McShane's Winston remains a significant figure in this story, but he's more vulnerable this time around, torn between the bonds of friendship and the obligations of the High Table: the word "fealty" is tossed about with great frequency in this movie. Laurence Fishburne returns for some crucial scenes as the Bowery King; it was a surprise to learn that his "kingdom" was also under the authority of the High Table; I can't recall whether that had been made clear in the second movie. Real-life martial artist Mark Dacascos—whom most people know from his silly, ornamental role in "Iron Chef America" as the supposed nephew of The Chairman from the original Japanese "Iron Chef"—shines as the assassin Zero, a sincere admirer of John Wick who is also keen to kill the man. "The Raid" stars Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman appear as Zero's students—assassins who are also delighted and honored to engage in a gentleman's form of hand-to-hand combat with John Wick. Randall Duk Kim, who played the Keymaker in "The Matrix Reloaded," also makes a brief appearance as a doctor. Lastly, we have to mention Anjelica Huston as the Director, one of the shadowy Ruska Roma people, training youths in dance and combat. She ends up helping John Wick and paying a heavy price for her aid.

The movie isn't without its problems. The musical soundtrack is still superficial, tinny, and annoying; director Chad Stahelski really ought to hire a better composer. The dialogue remains corny beyond belief; the scene in which Wick meets Sofia to discuss the past and the future feels rather cringe-y, although I'll give Halle Berry credit for actually trying to emote during the scene. (Reeves, meanwhile, is his usual wooden self.) The movie also contains the normal boilerplate implausibilities, such as how John Wick takes an impossible amount of damage, and how no normal citizen or policeman seems to notice things like loud fights inside a quiet library or motorcycle chases across bridges and through tunnels. Then again, if this film's universe is so chock-full of assassins, maybe there are no normal citizens or regular police. Perhaps worst of all was the Adjudicator, who is woefully miscast. She was an annoying presence throughout the film, and I found myself fervently wishing her a violent death. I'd have found her more tolerable had Anjelica Huston played her instead of the way-too-young Asia Kate Dillon, who lacked the necessary menace and gravitas for the role.

But "Parabellum" keeps up a relentless pace with few lulls. The movie doesn't qualify as deep or edifying entertainment; it's merely entertainment. But sometimes, that's all a bloke needs: turn off the brain, sit back, and enjoy. And that's what I did—I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and while I can't rate it quite as highly as the second movie (the first movie is still awful, by the way), I'd say it's worth a rewatch, if for no other reason than to see dogs attacking testicles, people getting slowly stabbed in the eye, and cartoonishly destructive shotguns.


Charles said...

Believe it or not, but I haven't seen any of the John Wick films yet (so I didn't read this review in detail, even though I suspect that spoilers aren't really an issue here). They've been on my radar, though, and HJ wants to see them, too. One of these days we'll sit down and watch them.

Kevin Kim said...

This review is safe to read. I discuss the outline of the movie and a few non-crucial details, but I don't reveal any major plot points or talk about how the movie ends.

File the John Wick films under "good, stupid fun."

Charles said...

I have read the review! Sounds pretty much like what I expected. But we will be going back to start with the first film, of course. Although we do have a lot to work through on our to-watch list; we are currently making our way through the Korean drama 미생 (four episodes down out of twenty).