I’m thinking he’s back… again.
John Wick caught everyone off guard back in 2014, lighting a fire underneath the waning career of Keanu Reeves and giving the world a new icon of action cinema. Directed by The Matrix stuntmen Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the film is an ultraviolent homage to Hong Kong action cinema which introduced the world at large to the concept of ‘gun fu’. The sequel was inevitable and now, two years after Wick was declared “excommunicado” for flouting underworld rules, he’s back for a third outing, with Stahelski again at the helm.
The film introduces John running through the streets of New York City, covered in blood in the pouring rain as he races to create some distance between himself and the world’s assassins, who are ready to pounce on his $14m bounty as soon as the order becomes official. Within the first half an hour of the movie, we’ve seen a burly killer receive a Chelsea Grin from a hardback book and a fight scene in which dozens of knives are tossed around like cricket balls. To call this a high-octane actioner is an understatement so stark it’s like saying Mel Gibson is slightly problematic.
When Parabellum – the title comes from a Latin phrase which translates as “if you want peace, prepare for war” – focuses on its action, it’s one of the most exhilarating movies of the year. Stahelski and his team have a remarkable aptitude for conjuring imaginative set pieces and the fight choreography has only become more intricate and intense in the years since the first film raised the bar for Hollywood carnage. Reeves, as usual, is pouring blood, sweat and tears – but mainly blood – into his performance and his commitment to doing as much work as possible for himself allows Stahelski to focus on extended takes, rather than the frantic cutting audiences have come to expect from action scenes.
The problems arise as soon as the dust settles and the action stops. This is a franchise in love with its own mythology, building a world at the same time as it’s also trying to pay-off a storyline that now spans three movies and an incoming spin-off TV series. The film gets bogged down in this mythos to the extent that the whole thing feels bloated and lacking in momentum. Characters new and old flit in and out of the narrative with scant regard for whether the audience can remember who they are, why they’re there or why Jerome Flynn is doing such an absurd accent.
Not all of the new characters fail to land, though. Halle Berry immediately stands out as an electric addition to the franchise as Sofia – a face from John’s past. With a mean array of firearm tricks and a selection of loyal, vicious canines, she’s the centrepiece of an absurdly elongated but totally brilliant set piece towards the middle of the movie. She’s not a character with a massive amount of importance to the plot, unfortunately, but Berry more than holds her own fighting alongside Reeves and it would be a delight to see her again in the inevitable future Wick films.
This is a franchise that continues to go from strength to strength in terms of its action and really is raising the bar for big screen violence – the presence of two of the martial art maestros from The Raid is significant. However, in an effort to broaden the canvas and explore the world, some of the simplicity that made the first film such a stark adrenaline shot has been abandoned. Instead, we’ve got Ian McShane saddled with bizarre, terrible dialogue – “this haven is safe no more” – and a bloated runtime that no amount of flying blades can rescue.
Dir: Chad Stahelski
Scr: Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, Marc Abrams
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ian McShane, Halle Berry, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston, Jerome Flynn, Laurence Fishburne, Jason Mantzoukas
Prd: Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee
DOP: Dan Laustsen
Music: Tyler Bates, Joel J. Richard
Run time: 105 mins
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is in UK cinemas now.