AT THE MOVIES
Third Time Is the Charm for “John Wick”
By Noah Gittell
I’m so old that I remember when sequels were bad. “Ghostbusters 2,” “Jaws 3,” and “Police Academy 6: Mission to Moscow”. That’s what a sequel used to be: a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of an original work by creating a lesser film with a similar-sounding name. They were guilty pleasures at best, and inessential junk at worst.
At some point in the last two decades, things changed. Studio execs figured out that, if they do sequels right, a franchise can go on forever. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the best example, but “Mission: Impossible” and the “Fast and Furious” franchise are also great ones. In each case, the producers refined their product with each film before finally stumbling onto the right formula. Now, these franchises are set up to outlive their stars. They’ll outlive us, too.
With “John Wick: Chapter Three — Parabellum,” we can add a new franchise to the list. The action film finally achieves the exquisite balance of balletic fight scenes, rich mythology, and peak-coolness Keanu that the franchise had previously promised but never delivered. For the uninitiated, the “John Wick” films are set in a slightly-parallel universe where life appears largely the same but an underground world of highly-skilled murderous assassins exists just beneath the surface. Wick was at the top of his profession before he left the life behind to marry his true love (Bridget Moynihan). After she dies of cancer, and some thugs rip him off and murder his dog, Wick channels his grief into revenge. Against anyone in his path.
At the end of “Chapter Two”, a bounty was put on Wick’s head, and every assassin in New York came after him. In “Parabellum,” he is evading them — with his fists and whatever gun happens to be nearby — while trying to reverse the bounty. In doing so, he takes a trip to his past, where he reunites with a ballet instructor from Belarus (Anjelica Huston) and a former associate now running a hotel in Casablanca (Halle Berry). Does the plot matter, though? A bunch of people try to kill Wick. Instead, he kills them in inventively gruesome ways. That’s the only story that counts in a “John Wick” film.
With plot just a minor annoyance, these films are free to focus on creative world-building. Within the world of “John Wick”, there is a five-star hotel for assassins — the production design gets better with each entry in the franchise — that has only one rule: no business on hotel grounds. There is a legendary “high table” of bosses who control the underworld, but whom we never see. In “Parabellum,” concepts like “parlay” and “deconsecration” are introduced and only explained a few scenes later. Much of the delight here is how the screenwriters introduce you to new aspects of this world without relying, as many big-budget films do, on lengthy exposition.
But let’s be honest: most people go to “John Wick” for violence. Even for skittish moviegoers, there is a giddy thrill in the sheer creativity on display that allows Wick to kill two men with a pencil or find ways to take down a room full of assassins who are all wearing bulletproof armor. While earlier films relied too heavily on gunplay, “Parabellum” shines when it puts Wick in close proximity to his enemies in hand-to-hand combat. Reeves, who been training for this kind of work since “The Matrix”, gives an impressively physical performance. His hulking body carries a lifetime of wounds, but, when engaged, he moves with grace and absolute precision. He still can’t deliver a piece of dialogue convincingly, but thankfully, this movie doesn’t really ask him to.
Still, action sequences and tchotchkes mean little without a solid foundation, and I have a hunch that what keeps the “John Wick” franchise running is how its themes of honor and justice play out in this specific world. In between gunfights or elevated fisticuffs, the screenplay delineates the myriad rules and regulations by which assassins like Wick must abide. When an assassin does a life-saving favor for another, it must be repaid. Fealty to the high table must be pledged in order to be protected by the code. An all-powerful “adjudicator” can show up at any time to enact a punishment for any ethical trespass.
It’s fun stuff, but it also boasts a meaningful cinematic lineage. The rules that govern the criminal underworld recall the Samurai Code mythologized by Akira Kurosawa or even the loose set of morals that define the American Cowboy. In some small way, it gives me hope for the future of cinema. The archetypes created up to a century ago still hold, and the old stories can become new again. They may be a little more violent and a little sillier than they once were, but that’s just the way of the world.
My Rating: See it in the Theater