By Jim Slotek
A self-aware franchise indeed, John Wick marked its second instalment with a notice in the press kit that the movie had 141 deaths – 57 more than the original.
At the time, series director Chad Stahelski - the action impresario who was trained by The Matrix’s Wachowski siblings - told me in an interview that about half the deaths were from gunshots to the head.
I didn’t bring a clicker, and an official death count is not on offer in the press kit for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. But I’m going to guess they set the bar even higher (we are told via dialogue that Keanu Reeves’ superstar assassin killed 20 men just getting out of New York at the beginning of the movie).
I will say, however, that two shots to the head, which happens repeatedly, is kind of a cheat when you’re compiling that stat.
More importantly, as the series evolves, the non-stop fighting is more about quality than quantity. I was just at a point where I was admiring the balletic aspects of the antic martial arts scenes, when damned if the movie didn’t shift locations to a ballet school, run by John Wicks’ erstwhile mentor, a Belarussian assassin-queen called The Director (Anjelica Huston).
While Stahelski is unlikely ever to be called upon to make a rom-com or coming-of-age movie, he and Reeves have taken the fluid action of the John Wick series to a point of “how are they going to top that last insane thing they did?” And there’s an imagination at work that’s straight out of Looney Tunes. (Who looks at a horse and says, “You know, you could find interesting ways to kill people with that thing?”)
The actual narrative mechanics of the movie is like an action-machine, given the cliff-hangers that presage each instalment. We’re reminded constantly that the accelerating violence began in the first movie with the death of a dog. (Skirting with spoilers, I will say only that new dogs are introduced, and placed in jeopardy, in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum).
As the second movie ended, Wick’s flagrant disregard for the rules had gotten him banned from The Continental, a hotel “consecrated” by the international assasssins guild The High Table as neutral ground, and run by manager Winston (Ian McShane) and a thoroughly efficient head concierge named Charon (Lance Reddick).
More importantly, it brought down the wrath of the High Table, and a $14 million bounty on Wicks’ head. Like a homicidal zombie movie, it turns out every other homeless person in New York is secretly a paid assassin who could use the money (kind of a buyer’s market when the market is that saturated). What Chapter 3 – Parabellum adds to the mix is a further death sentence against anyone considered to be a John Wick ally. These include Winston, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and The Director. Declare enough members of your organization personae non grata, and eventually there’ll be pushback. That’s all I’m saying.
Well, that and the word “parabellum” means, “Prepare for war,” in Latin.
The further we get into the workings of the High Table, the more Byzantine the whole thing becomes – to the point where, frankly, I didn’t quite buy the story we’re given behind the leader of the global assassins organization (other than it gives John Wick a chance to stagger thirstily through the Moroccan desert, still nattily dressed in his suit and tie).
Besides Huston’s character, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum introduces a sassy heroine (a perma-ticked-off assassin named Sofia, played by Halle Berry) and two effective villains - a lethal sushi chef named Zero (Mark Dacascos) whose job of killing Wick is tempered by his fanboy admiration for the living legend, and The Adjudicator (gender non-binary actor Asia Kate Dillon), who cold-bloodedly enforces the cruel decisions the High Table.
In comparison with its sequels, the plot of the first John Wick was cut-and-dried, A-to-B. So, it’s counterintuitive that they find time to kill so many more people while tacking on so much narrative.
It’s a remarkable franchise in that regard, like a smarter version of The Fast & the Furious. With more gunshots to the head.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Directed by Chad Stahelski. Starring Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry and Ian McShane. Opens wide, Friday, May 17.