Lately I’ve been finding myself over excited for the possibility of Chad Stahelski adapting Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, a series that was a personal guilty pleasure read back in my undergrad years. This excitement was verbalized shortly after seeing his latest feature John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the third in the John Wick franchise that saw him make the move for Hollywood stuntman to action film director, where I realized that this franchise and the Sandman Slim series had a lot of things in common that Stahelski has proven a boon to: (under)world-building, a story of romance-based vengeance, a protagonist who is evidently the best at the violent thing he does, but the biggest element that Parabellum indicates (and that I should have known from the first John Wick) is a love for movies and eagerness for references that is shared by Kadrey’s books.
Within the first three minutes, Buster Keaton clips are projected in the background off of a Times Square building (this was also done in John Wick: Chapter 2 within the first three SHOTS). Within 30 minutes, the titular assassin John Wick (Reeves) seeks refuge in the Tarkovsky Theatre*. And then there’s the casting, which is obviously not the first thing I’d expect to praise John Wick for, but as the best ensemble of the whole franchise to date, a lot of the actors feel very much winking to their past careers. Mark Dacascos is introduced running a sushi shop, Jerome Flynn (in a heinous accent) finally lives Bronn’s dream of having a castle, Boban Marjanovic’s cameo appearance feels reminiscent of fellow basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Bruce Lee vehicle Game of Death, and in a franchise full of flexes, no bigger flex is made than having Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman – Mad Dog and The Assassin themselves – mark over getting to fight John Wick himself! Not unexpected coming from a franchise that knowingly reunited Laurence Fishburne with his Matrix co-star but to the degree that this third entry indulges in… wow.
Needless to say, the ensemble is only one of every single aspect of the John Wick films that Parabellum has amped up. Following in the style of the later Mission: Impossible films, Chad Stahelski and his team’s response to continuing the tales of their grieving assassin is to just bring out “more”. More elaborate fights, more elaborate sets, more elaborate world-building, and on and on. The note that Chapter 2 left Wick on was the promise of the entire underworld of Assassins – centralized by the international chain of hotels called The Continental – coming down on Wick, so there wasn’t much to demand of writer Derek Kolstad and yet he finds a way to add a layer to that threat in the form of the confident and poised official Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). The Adjudicator’s sights expand beyond Wick to the hands of anybody who aided or aids Wick in his escape from repercussions, including New York City’s Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) and Bowery King (Fishburne), and this allows more sketching of the hierarchies and traditions of this murderous culture while Wick has to deal with end-to-end would-be killers trying to get his head.
More than anything, this unrelenting hunt that Wick is at the center of introduces a wide variety of combat styles stemming from the otherwise mundane locations Wick has to escape from alive – from having to deal with the cramped rows of the New York Public Library to a vintage Chinatown warehouse filled with knives to evading motorcycles under the L train on horseback – bringing out the full creativity of the stunt coordinators trying to escalate each fight to a climax and the full ability of the stunt team to use their bodies as spectacle. And their humor too as this turns out to be the most self-aware of the John Wick films to date with moments like Wick weaponizing a notorious joke from Blart Blart: Mall Blart 2 and recreating Tuco’s revolver-building sequence from The Good, the Bad, the Ugly as a ticking timeclock sequence. Dacascos himself seems eager to jump in on the good humor of the franchise, his shinobi master Zero being all too eager to make pals with Wick while still stressing the inevitability of him killing Wick as hired by The Adjudicator as their primary instrument. And it’s a cheeky attitude that fills every facet of Parabellum as a work of art, most notoriously when production designer Kevin Kavanaugh includes – amongst his sleek, flowing luxury Berber tents in the Sahara and finely-aged historic ballet auditoriums – a set made out of glass designed to visualize the video game-like boss levels Wick must elevate in the climax as well as facilitate an absurdly hilarious moment where he just keeps getting kicked over and over by Zero’s ninjas into sugarglass pillars with no time to catch his breath.
John’s inability to ever catch his breath seems evermore present in this installment, making us more aware then ever that everything John is going through during this trilogy took place in very close chronological proximity (Parabellum opens less than an hour after Chapter 2 closed) and after Kolstad practically ignoring John’s widow-ship in the last movie, it’s brought forward once more for John to answer the query: “My son, how did you come to be so lost? Never seen a man fight so hard to end up back where he started.” Indeed, embodying frustrated exhaustion turns out to be yet another effective utilization of Reeves’ acting limits, where his laconic nature pushes against all the blood and sweat and sand all around him to be more focused in its viciousness than ever.
But really this is all just a pretext for designing fashion like violence. A very dedicated pretext mind you that certain viewers might understandably not find as gloriously pulpish as I do (indeed, a backstory scene between Wick and Halle Berry’s Sofia feels like the weakest moment in the franchise while still maintaining this film being the best work either actor has performed yet), but the pretext is able to step out of the way quick enough to return to the chase for Wick and the constantly escalating danger (paced impeccably by Evan Schiff so that each battle feels like an individual short film) in an ever-more florid array of Metropolitan color provided by Dan Laustsen (this film might include my favorite cinematic depiction of Manhattan’s Chinatown, presented in such overwhelming rain that the lights become blurry circles in the alleys interrupting the blue with imperfect circles of yellow and red).
It’s such an overwhelming amount of visual stimuli, overwrought dramatic epic (with a 30s serial-esque quest into the golden Sahara desert taking place in the middle), and breathtaking body movements (so aware of action movie’s function as cinematic ballet that it intercuts a violent slaughter with a ballet sequence) outdoing its predecessors that answering John Wick: Chapter 4‘s demand for “more” seems an impossible task for Stahelski, but I’m excited nevertheless for how they meet that need head-on. I mean, we have MORE DOGS in this film even and they munch on their enemy’s nuts! Deez Nutz!
*Which in turn brings one to remember Atomic Blonde – directed by John Wick‘s uncredited co-director David Leitch – featuring a fight scene set behind a movie screen playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.