Monday, 24 June 2019

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019)

Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry and some very, very mean dogs in John Wick Chapter 3


Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves (John Wick), Ian McShane (Winston), Mark Dacascos (Zero), Laurence Fishbourne (The Bowery King), Asia Kate Dillon (The Adjucator), Halle Berry (Sofia), Lance Reddick (Charon), Anjelica Huston (The Director), Saïd Taghmaoui (The Elder), Jerome Flynn (Berrada)

Early on in the film, John Wick (Keanu Reeves in a role he might have been born to play) builds a gun from scratch components of other weapons to fire some outsized ammunition, throws an axe across a room to take out an assassin, and then effectively reloads a horse, using its rear leg kicks to dispatch two more luckless assassins. It’s a dizzying 20 minutes or so of pure balls-to-the-wall action fun full of invention and black humour. The film never gets near repeating it, despite much trying.

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum doesn’t have much in the way of plot. Instead it’s effectively a two-hour series of fight sequences. What plot there is pops up around the edges of all this imaginative blood-letting. That plot doesn’t really make much sense, and can basically be summarised as John has been declared excommunicado by “The High Table”, the shady organisation that runs the criminal underworld, meaning he is a target for every assassin in the world, and he is trying to reverse that decision. That’s kind of it, and any other subplots are basically slightly confusing or narratively empty detours from that central idea.

If you cut out all the fight sequences from the film, it wouldn’t run a lot longer than 15 minutes. There isn’t really any interest in the talking stuff or the characters, which seems to be fine for the likes of Laurence Fishbourne, who is wheeled out for three scenes of badass scenery chewing, but does mean that motivations and reasons for why anyone is doing anything at all remain completely unclear. There is a key subplot involving Ian McShane’s management of the Continental, the criminal “neutral zone” hotel in the centre of New York, that involves so many changes of allegiance and intentions that it winds up making no real sense.

But then people ain’t going to this for a character study. They are there for the fights. And, as I say, these are really inventive and entertaining. The first 20 minutes – with John haring through New York, trying to stay one step ahead of a blizzard of killers – is brilliant. It’s designed to be watched with large groups of people in the same mood, encouraging you to laugh, wince and shout out with the people around you. You can’t fault the work that has gone into the filming of this or the commitment of the actors or the genius of the choreographers. All of this is pretty faultless. And, no matter what extended fight you watch, you know you will see something different in every single one.

The problem is, the vast number of fights begins to pummel the audience into submission as well. Seeing Keanu Reeves involved in a series of three-in-a-row mixed martial arts sequences, each lasting well over 5-10 minutes, you start to let the whole thing drift over you. Put bluntly, after the initial explosion of action, the film hits a level it tries to sustain for almost an hour. And it’s too much. You just can’t keep that same level of engagement. I actually nearly dropped off at one point, which is not a good sign. How much action can one film take? 

There needs to be a balance. And without any real investment in what we are seeing, John Wick 3 is another of those films designed for YouTube. I can imagine watching most of these fights as little five-minute videos on the Internet in the future. Actually broken down like this I will probably enjoy it a lot more. But as a single film, there is nothing there to link it together.

The first film had a simple, but very pure, storyline that we could all relate to. A man loses his beloved wife, who on her deathbed gifts him a dog to care for. Said dog is then killed in a senseless break-in by some arrogant criminals. John Wick’s revenge is against those who thoughtlessly took from him the last piece of the only woman he loved. Everyone can relate to that – and it grounded everything we saw and immediately put us on John’s side. This film however is a confused motivation-less mess. If the series originally presented us with a John unwillingly dragged back into this world, since then (and here) he seems like a character with no inner life. 

The film attempts vaguely to add one, suggesting that John must make a choice between being a killer or the better man. Problem is choosing to be the better man isn’t really a platform for fights. So we lose what the film really needs, which is John struggling between his good and bad demons. Instead his motivations are a confused mess and the film spends more time showing us the brutal groin attacks of Halle Berry’s dogs (those things fight with no honour let me tell you) than giving us a lead character with a coherent personality.

It makes John Wick 3 not a lot more than a YouTube compilation, and giving Ian McShane some Latin to drop to explain the film’s title, or trying to change a character in Act 4 into a personal rival for John, doesn’t suddenly give it depth or interest. It’s fun in small chunks, but this is way too long and seems to have lost at least half of what made the first film such a guilty pleasure.

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