Rules and consequences.
Like the Purge series before it, John Wick is proving to be a money-making franchise that loves to let its mythology gradually unfold in a way that familiarizes via a personal experience prior to zooming out so the systemic issues beyond one man’s home can be revealed. While we still stay with the titular character as played by Keanu Reeves (an assassin that assassins simultaneously fear and revere who did the impossible to get out of the life only to see tragedy—his wife’s untimely death—start a chain reaction that puts him right back in), his role as an antihero for which we can align evolves to serve as an avatar with whom we travel this world that’s so much like our own despite being wholly unique.
Where you could ignore the broader ramifications of what transpires during John Wick due to the nature of its hell-bent on revenge lead having a foot in two realities (that of a civilian and that of a seemingly clandestine syndicate of killers bound by archaic traditions who work in plain sight). The places he goes to wreak unrelenting havoc are part of that past life he hoped to shed and thus unfazed by the gunfire and bloodshed. When we arrive at John Wick: Chapter 2, however, we discover just how thin the wall separating these two is after an international contract calling for his head exposes exactly how many “civilians” are willingly caught up in this deadly game controlled by an unseen quorum known as The High Table.
It’s only natural that director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad (with rewrites by Shay Hatten and the duo of Chris Collins and Marc Abrams) would push even further out with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. The subtitle comes from the Roman quote “Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“If you want peace, prepare for war”) and no sentiment could be more appropriate considering what we’ve watched occur over the previous two installments: namely a man who wants nothing more than to be left alone getting dragged back into the fold. What began as a simple personal matter expands to include an attack on The High Table that’s convolutedly sanctioned by The High Table’s own immovable rules. Unfortunately for Wick, his friends broke rules to help facilitate that mission.
These leaders can no longer sit back and watch the natural order of things re-establish itself since Wick has proven his empathy streak shook what had been a stranglehold on everyone under their jurisdiction. Killing him is no longer a catchall fix when the manager (Ian McShane‘s Winston) of the New York City branch of The Continental (a safe haven for those who live by The High Table’s code wherein no business—murder—can occur) is exposed as a John Wick sympathizer. The additional assistance of the Bowery King’s (Laurence Fishburne) infinite eyes and ears on the street willing to help anyone with a gold coin and the woman who made John into Baba Yaga (Anjelica Huston‘s The Director) only confirms this well-oiled machine has officially seized.
So here are three High Table pillars in NYC giving Wick the benefit of the doubt so they may retain a peace predicated upon their ability to be trusted by the men and women they deal with everyday. It’s a peace that ensures they must prepare for war whereas the type resulting from killing John would have tightened the ropes around their own hands. How they react to a visit by their overlords’ Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) therefore dictates whether they live through a vicious punishment or die for their sins. Some will of course reaffirm their loyalties to serve while others refuse and spark a revolution. Suddenly Wick is but one figure—albeit the strongest—within a battle for freedom we hadn’t known more than he craved.
Chapter 3 becomes an interesting beast as a result because it must deliver a ton of hierarchical exposition with very limited time. While you may be wondering how I could call 130-minutes “limited,” know that about twenty percent of it is contextual information with fighting accounting for the rest. The filmmakers have thus created something more akin to a musical than your generic actioner wherein the choreography and players serve as visual lyrics augmenting the pared down plot punctuated by staccato bursts of detail. Wick’s old acquaintance Sofia (Halle Berry) enters as a kindred emotional spirit and conduit up the corporate ladder for potential redemption. The Adjudicator’s muscle (Mark Dacascos‘ Zero) provides Wick his methodically ruthless equal and dispassionate opposite. They’re plot devices that gain relevance in battle.
And I loved them all the more for it since they help open this universe up. The film is just John running for his life and yet it felt as though I learned more about the franchise here than the other two combined. There’s backstabbing, rebellion, historical education, defined infrastructure, and an eye-opening display of synergistic co-habitation wherein Stahelski and company unequivocally prove these movies cannot exist in our world. Extras in large crowd scenes don’t even flinch when bullets start flying either because it’s impossible for innocents to be harmed or anyone under The High Table’s authority is literally a ghost that exists on a separate dimensional plane. This is no longer a layer placed atop our Earth. It’s a veritable dystopian alternate reality under totalitarian rule.
How can you not find that possibility fascinating enough to stick with the series as it teases spin-offs (Huston’s Director is an obvious segue into Ballerina) and television shows (“The Continental”)? If somehow you don’t, though, the wall-to-wall action that works as a purely visceral cinematic experience removed from its narrative relevance should still get the adrenaline pumping. Whether it’s Wick being a one-man whirling dervish in extended shots of punishing brutality or him cutting through villains with help (Berry and her dogs or Lance Reddick‘s Charon showing he’s more than a mild-mannered concierge), Stahelski has outdone himself with glass labyrinths, motorcycle sword duels, and close-quarter museum-grade knife-fights. Besides Dacascos going too far against the tonally severe grain with his cartoonish fanboy shtick, Parabellum creates a new benchmark.
courtesy of Lionsgate