Suffering and grace come together in this magisterial continuation of the John Wick franchise

David G. Hughes on Chad Stahelski’s ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum’ (2019)

“Art is pain, and life is suffering,” says “The Director” (Anjelica Huston), the Matriarch of the Ruska Roma in New York. She’s escorting a battered and bruised John Wick (Keanu Reeves) through her opulent academy, a military-like coterie of Romani people moulding themselves into idyllic and graceful specimens of their species. The women pluck toenails from their crippled feet, a consequence of strenuous ballet training. The men judo grapple in violent conflict and John is asked, “bring back memories?” The entire sequence is a brazen assertion of the John Wick franchise’ aesthetic philosophy, a self-conscious celebration of the maxim: “pain is temporary, art is forever.”

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is a straight-and-narrow continuation of the hit franchise, taking place almost directly after the conclusion of John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017). John Wick is on the run from an open contract for his head, the reward of which sits at $14 million. He turns to ‘The Director’ and her Romani people in hope of refuge from the city-wide onslaught, relying on “a ticket” long-ago promised. Wick’s not simply relying on the arcane laws of the underworld, he’s also relying on sheer good-will and loyalty, for we learn that he himself was Romani, a Gypsy forged by the same rigorous discipline that director Chad Stahelski displays before us. John Wick, in other words, came from a ballet school. The authoritarian drilling resembles the type of Peking Opera School that Hong Kong action stalwarts Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao honed themselves as adolescents, wherein martial-arts, acrobatics, singing and the perpetual threat of intense corporeal punishment made them the graceful physical artists that they became to the joy of us all.

Directed by a former stunt-man, Parabellum believes in grace and the pleasure of display, of the wonder of physical action, a Samurai ethos in which the greater the cost means the greater the reward. Centred around the talents and charisma of its central star, Reeves has found a director who knows exactly how to shoot him, to weaponise him as Wick weaponises objects around him. Few, if any, franchise has objectified its central figure so gloriously, so effectively, as to make a statement about human form itself. Indeed, Reeves is lethally charismatic, a heart-stopping movie star in an old-fashioned sense. Watching him steer a horse through the streets of New York in escape is surely one of the finest displays of cinematic equestrianism since the “Golden Age” of Hollywood. Here is an actor who can manipulate firearms impressively, ride horses and motorcycles proficiently, fight and choreograph, and look mighty fine while doing it. All the while, dedicated artists, technicians and labourers build a visually resplendent world around him.

Parabellum is the pinnacle of the unique Wick World: an alchemy of religious iconography, Gothic mood, classical antiquity, nocturnal neo-noir, silent cinema performativity, comic-book hyper-reality, and echoes of Dante and Caravaggio. Exquisite artwork and sculptures drape the mise-en-scene, classical music accompanies hand-to-hand combat, and characters utter Latin adages. It is an ornamental, timeless, but deadly world wherein objet d’art depict conflict and suffering and then become weapons in conflict and suffering. It’s all so sensuous and erudite, a synthesis of aesthetic preferences that all converge at the same point: the physical body, in its duress and grace, as the fundamental concern of all art since cave paintings. Wick’s “ticket” of escape is no less than a crucifix, the archetypal image of suffering and grace, a symbolic reminder that Wick will suffer, continuously, in his pursuit of peace.

The raison d’etre of such a film has nothing to do with ‘character development’ or ‘narrative refinement’ – literary hangups that have no place in a critique. Creativity is the most pertinent criteria for assessment. The modus operandi when making John Wick has little to do with anything other than finding new ways to display choreographed physical feats in ingenious and novel ways. Crucially, it must occur within the boundaries of believability and with a semblance of realism, for that is where creativity comes from – limitations. It’s absolutely essential that the John Wick world maintains its love of the real, of the pro-filmic appreciation for things happening. So when critics complain that “choreography is all that’s on offer here” they almost certainly are missing the point.

Indeed, a lot of people are. In a world obsessed with film as politics, John Wick is here telling us to relax and get in on the joke. If you’re uncomfortable with a hero gunning down hundreds of people, then you too are almost certainly missing the point, the schadenfreude. Naturally, humour plays an integral role in the film, its portentous, existentialist facade a joke in and of itself. Funny not just with verbal quips but physical comedy that we associate with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. It’s very likely that you’ll love an assassin getting an axe hurled into his cranium, for Stahelski and Reeves understand the excessive and, yes, the sadistic appeal of art.

It’s a joy, and a pleasant surprise, to see a film franchise increase in excess enjoyment of violence in a world where financial success means a reduction in said “problematics” (see the recent Game of Thrones). Parabellum is certainly the most violent in the franchise, and the most creatively violent. Take, for example, a battle sequence midway through the film in which Halle Berry and her truly spectacular canine allies emasculate their foes. It’s likely that you’ve never seen anything like this, and it makes for a joyful meta-riposte to the supposed overly macho nature of the franchise. As we said in our John Wick 2 review, the franchise, centred around a feline star in a world blind to gender, is more about breaking boundaries than reinforcing them.

Some may feel battle fatigue, for the film is quite literally a non-stop two-hour plus chase movie, but this excess feels deliberate and gets to the heart of the central achievement of the John Wick experience: the rapport established with the audience. This rapport is a result of the earned trust that viewers have placed in the taste, singular warrior focus and aesthetic philosophy of Reeves and his director. They are not cheats or cynics, nor condescending or moralistic. They operate in the role of service, giving you what you want and things you didn’t even know you wanted, beating themselves up to please their patrons. This contract is felt in the goodwill that the audience has towards the film, vocally articulated in the screening auditorium. You beging to realise what, as audiences, we have come to accept as film entertainment contra the sublime effort of Parabellum.

The film isn’t perfect. One cannot help but feel that the fights get less spectacular as the film progresses. When Wick is faced with Yayan Ruhian — seasoned martial artists from sensational Indonesian action film The Raid 2 (2014) — you see Reeve’s limitations as an actor first, fighter second. The choreography just doesn’t click here. It is the case, however, that Parabellum is walking the line that film theoretician V.F. Perkins called “aesthetic suspense”, which is to say: an audience is in a position of continual suspense and judgement as to whether each moment will come together while it’s happening. If it does, euphoria reigns. If it doesn’t, you’re disappointed. It’s surely impossible for a film as bombastic and ambitious as Parabellum to pull it off 100% of the time, but the film is in constant, admirable search of that lift, that moment of grace. To achieve it as often as it does is not “just choreography”. Even those who purport to admire the films engage in damning of faint praise, describing “stupid fun”. It is that, in as much as Parabellum is not a cerebral exercise and is most certainly fun, but it’s so much more. Let’s not beat around the bush: it is, in fact, a fundamental claim to film as art.

Showing in cinemas now

David G. Hughes

By David G. Hughes

David G. Hughes is the Northern-born, London-based Founder & Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King's College London and Film Aesthetics (Mst) from The University of Oxford. He has written for Film International, Little White Lies, and more.