I saw John Wick Chapter 3 — Parabellum last night, and most of all, I adore the dark beauty of John Wick’s world. It felt like a traditional fairy tale in a lot of ways — not the scrubbed clean stories of Grimm, but the real ones, where the hero has to defeat untold odds and the heroine’s mother dances to her death in shoes made of molten iron and stuff.
I thought the cinematography was darkly evocative, hitting hard into our hunger for mythic, macabre spaces. It turned New York into a glittering night city where you could truly believe that the population folds quietly around all the people being murdered in its midst.
It is difficult for me to choose which New York set I liked best — was it the upper room of the antique shop, full of display cases conveniently lined with knives and axes? (Oh god the creative deaths in this scene.) Was it the old theater run by Angelica Houston’s Russian-Romani dance director, full of dark caverns of exploited athlete children? Or was it the stacks of the New York Public Library, where Wick kills a guy using only books? Or perhaps it was the womb of every holt, the beautifully polished interior of the Continental Hotel, in all its film noir glory?
I’m just going to say: yes, to all of it, I loved this New York City and the human monsters it nurtures. I loved it so much I went and read John Wick Volume 1, the graphic novel by Greg Pak, which outlines a tiny bit of our protagonist’s backstory — a quick and worthy read.
By now, the story of how John Wick came to be is part of the legend behind this series: What if, the directors posited, they made an action movie with realistic weapons that have to be maintained at inconvenient times? Reloading guns is the signature of the series, and this move came into play at important, often humorous, junctures in the action of Parabellum.
It wasn’t just the setting that gripped me, though. Like in every fairy tale, I found myself sympathetic to all of the morally ambiguous characters (perhaps because the older I get, the more I realize that I’m on #TeamEvilQueen).
Everyone had a stake in the action, and a few of the characters (especially Halle Berry’s Sofia) had a Kabuki-esque intensity of emotion resonant of Kill Bill. For example, Sofia, when explaining why she can’t help Wick, says the cliched line “You have to kill what you love” with such quiet forcefulness that you truly believe she means the dubiously truthful thing she’s just said. (Also Sofia has two fantastic dogs that attack men in the dick especially, and with the way the world is trending, maybe she’s got an idea there.)
It’s the rare director who realizes that Keanu Reeves’ special ability is to turn one-liners into haiku, but Chad Stahelski (former stuntman and current John Wick director) and his compatriot David Leitch, have it handled, especially with Reeves’ very last line: “Yeah. Yeah, I’m pissed off.” (Imagine that being grunted out through the bloodied face of a guy who just survived being shot three times and plummeting off a roof.)
The plot. Previously, the series’s biggest conceit was how transparent it was about getting the action going. For John Wick 1, the plot was: former assassin leaves the business but is forced to return. John Wick 2, uh, has something to do with cashing in on a blood oath, but is simply a justification for killing lots of people in increasingly inventive ways. John Wick 3, I felt, had the most solid plot of the series so far. Wick has committed a breach of the High Table code, killing someone in the consecrated (literally) halls of the Continental. The Adjudicator, a fantastically emotionless tool of the bureaucracy, is deployed by the High Table to bring everyone involved into accountability, especially John Wick, but also anyone who has helped him.
For me, the emotional resonance of the plot is summarized by a moment in which Wick has to beg the “guy above the high table” for a chance to remain alive after he violated this rule. “Why do you want to remain alive?” the Guy Above the High Table asks him. “To remember my wife,” Wick says. “To remember us together.” Then he cuts off his own finger to show fealty to the Guy, the one with the wedding ring on it.
What does it mean that in the last part of the movie, when asked to kill a friend of his, Wick immediately ignores his oath to the Guy and simply doesn’t? I’m still mulling this over, but it’s great. It means that oaths and rules matter less to Wick than friendship and compassion, something in low supply in this world of killers.
Why was the name “Parabellum” appended to the well-known moniker, John Wick 3? Wikipedia informs me that Parabellum means “Prepare for war,” especially in the Latin quote, “si vis pacem, para bellum” (“If you want peace, prepare for war”). I guess this is the biggest hint, aside from the final few words, that this movie is really just the beginning of a vaster tale. The plot of the future movies, I reckon, will involve a war between the Under Table led by Morpheus, err, the Bowrey king, and the High Table.
I can’t wait!
Update: Read this story from EW about the cats, though. It’s great.