Director: Chad Stahelski
Writers: Derek Kolstad (screenplay, story, and based on characters created by), Shay Hatten (screenplay by), Chris Collins (screenplay by), Marc Abrams (screenplay by)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane
Runtime: 130 mins
MPAA Rating: R
The action movie genre as a whole is not in a wonderful place right now. Tired CGI-galore battles and choppy editing seem to dominate the stylistic decision-making in most modern action-heavy movies. It has gotten to the point that the action scenes in many movies are in fact some of the most uninteresting and unexciting parts of a movie for me. However, there are still a few modern action films that carefully crafted exceptional action sequences involving impressive cinematography, choreography, and stunt work such as both The Raid films, 13 Assassins, Mad Max: Fury Road, and (you guessed it) the John Wick films. The first two entries in this franchise were excellent in that they were straight-forward action films with plots devoid of needless complexity, instead choosing to focus on constructing outstanding action sequences as well as distinct aesthetics and original world-building. Fortunately, Parabellum is a natural successor and does not disappoint in any of these regards.
Picking up right where the previous film left off, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is on the run in New York City after being excommunicated from the order of assassins using every bit of the one-hour head start granted to him by the assassins’ regional hotel manager Winston (Ian McShane). John must fend off and escape the multitude of assassins seeking to collect on the $14 million bounty on his head as he travels from location to location in an attempt to rectify his dire situation. There is a little bit more to the plot as we are introduced to an adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) who comes in from criminal corporate to audit the Manhattan branch of this nebulous criminal network; she ruthlessly corrects those who step outside the rules from the big bosses at the so-called “High Table”. Even more so than the previous film, the amount of world-building is increased, and it is done selectively so that there is an air of mystery at every turn of the plot. I commend primary writer Derek Kolstad for the effort he has put into making this ridiculous crime-driven parallel universe so unique and stylistically intriguing across numerous settings.
Yes, I know that plot is not the main reason most people will see this movie. So here is my one-word review of the action: phenomenal. Every scene is put together so seamlessly, and the fact that Keanu Reeves is right in there doing nearly all of the stunt work goes a long way to making every action scene feel real. The fight choreography is tremendously complex and involves fists, knives, books, swords, guns, animals, vehicles, and much more. All of the hand-to-hand combat is necessarily violent, and the camera does not shy away from showing it. The camerawork is outstanding throughout the duration of each sequence, and each action scene is coherent and easy-to-follow due to smart, restrained editing choices. Stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski, who also directed the first two films, seems to just know what physical action looks good on camera and seems to place an emphasis on making sure that the skillful cinematography by Dan Laustsen (The Shape of Water) appropriately captures nearly every bit of stunt work. Additionally, the movie just looks really slick primarily due to excellent lighting. Despite much of the movie taking place after dusk or in the rain, the artificial lighting choices lend style and mood to each scene, giving the entire film a look of its own (short version: this movie looks really cool). The sound design complements the visuals and enhances the brutality of much of the fighting; I would argue that some of the hand-to-hand sound effects are a little over-the-top in parts, but it is not a huge issue. The most impressive sequence is a high-speed motorcycle chase with several extended takes from what I believe is just a camera mounted to a car that is outpacing the motorcycles and maneuvering in and around them to track the combat between bike-mounted Keanu and his katana-wielding assailants. Furthermore, I got to see a number of action scenes with elements I have not ever before witnessed; let me just say that dogs and horses inflict a lot of damage. Out of all three films in this franchise, this one definitely achieves the most on a technical level.
The weaker elements are the same as in the previous films. The human element takes a back seat to almost everything else and oftentimes feels video-game-esque. John Wick’s motivations for his actions seem to be getting weaker and weaker from film to film. Beyond the stunts and excitement, none of the characters are incredibly interesting or well-developed. Overall, I wish there had been as much effort put into the character development as there was into the world development, but, at the same time, there really does not need to be much there for the type of movie this is. That being said, Ian McShane, Lance Riddick, and Laurence Fishburne are all having a blast in their supporting roles. Despite her borderline-cringe-worthy dialogue and delivery, Halle Berry, who turns up in this franchise for the first time as Sofia, a fiery overseas associate of John’s, gives an impressive physical performance during the action sequences in which she is involved. Most surprising and amusing for me was a cameo by 7’ 3” NBA player Boban Marjanović as one of the assassins looking to cash in on the bounty on John Wick. For how ridiculous it is when you really think about it, the movie does not take itself too seriously, which I appreciated in some parts, but, elsewhere, the levity undercut the tension that had been built. Other than that, the plot felt a little strung-together in order to get John from location to location. There is also a really stupid journey-into-the-wilderness-to-find-what-you-are-looking-for part of the story that I did not enjoy at all. However, the movie always falls back on its strengths and maintains a strong pace.
Like the previous entries in this franchise, I am most strongly reminded of classic John Woo “gun-fu” action films such as Hard-Boiled and The Killer as well as the The Raid films (in fact, two of the main martial artist actors from The Raid films appear as foes for John Wick towards the end of the movie). I grew up watching a lot of martial arts films and really appreciate when filmmakers put effort into the action as it makes movies that much more fun to watch. Parabellum strongly pushes the idea that skillfully-choreographed action filmography is a fine art as evidenced by one fairly over-the-top sequence where fighting is interspersed with a ballet performance. When it is done this well, I would have to agree. If you are a fan of this franchise or any of the movies I have mentioned in this review, you are not going to want to miss this one. If you do not do so well with violence, you are going to want to skip this one. Simple as that.
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