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An Action Movie Done Right: ‘John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum’

Dir. Chad Stahelski—3.5 STARS

'John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum' still
Keanu Reeves stars as John Wick in "John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum."

The “John Wick” franchise has reinvigorated the action movie genre in a time when the action in movies is often incomprehensible, clouded by quick cuts, shaky-camera movements, and cheap special effects. Thankfully, “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” — the latest entry in this unapologetically bloody, but increasingly successful action franchise — lives up to its predecessors: It delivers stunningly choreographed, beautifully shot sequences with Keanu Reeves giving a dedicated performance as the titular lead.

The story picks up immediately where “John Wick: Chapter 2” left off: John Wick is mere minutes away from being excommunicated by the "High Table" (the high command for assassins) because he killed one of its members. When the "High Table" places a $14 million bounty on Wick’s head, assassins swarm to hunt him down, setting off one thrilling action set piece after another. The film's relatively simple premise of an assassin on the run succeeds because it constantly generates momentum; John Wick never catches a break, so neither does the audience.

Director Chad Stahelski (who has helmed all three “John Wick” films) is a stunt veteran, notably completing Brandon Lee’s performance in “The Crow” following Lee's untimely death in shooting, and incidentally performing some of Keanu Reeves’ stunts as a double in “The Matrix." His experience in the craft of stunt-work and love of its role in the action genre is infectious in “John Wick: Chapter 3,” where he makes the most of the film’s exceptional stunt-work with takes that are long enough for the audience to discern who’s fighting who, and that are peppered with wide shots that allow the audience to admire the realism of characters’ movements. It’s especially refreshing to see an action movie with this degree of bloodshed pay so much attention to cinematography. Each frame is intricately blocked, beautifully lit, and vividly colored to engross viewers in the alien world of assassins.

“John Wick: Chapter 3” achieves such a high caliber of stunt-work because of Keanu Reeves’ commitment to his performance. For a man with his skill in stunt work and ability to deliver gruff one-liners, Reeves finds himself completely in his element, and “Parabellum” capitalizes on his unique talent, as Reeves performing 90% of his own stunts. When a lead actor does their own stunts, the director doesn't have to cut every time the actor has to be replaced by a stunt double. It also means that the director doesn’t have to intentionally shake the camera to hide the fact that a stunt double is being used. Avoiding the jerky, nauseating fast-cut fight scenes allows for watchable results, and “Parabellum” goes above and beyond with truly creative kill-sequences (including the snapping of a neck with a book), some uncompromising close-up shots that make the audience squirm, and even deaths that Stahelski plays for physical comedy.

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Action films earn credibility based on how their actors handle stunts: The most successful films in the genre feature leads who give their all to their physical performances. For instance, “Mission: Impossible” has stayed popular for more than 20 years largely because of Tom Cruise’s physical commitment to his role: The fourth entry in the series, “Ghost Protocol," features a death-defying action scene where Cruise scales the Burj Khalifa. Reeves performs with similar grit in “Parabellum," especially in an adrenaline-charged sword fight that doubles as a motorcycle chase. This sequence would have been impossible to shoot with an actor lacking Reeves' vigor and professionalism — with it, the film is an unrelenting action spectacle.

The main issues of the film begin to surface when Stahelski tries to achieve too much. There are moments when the plot becomes unnecessarily bloated: A significant portion of the narrative involves John Wick searching for people to help revoke his excommunication. Inevitably, a number of scenes devolve into people explaining the plot. These exposition-burdened sequences introduce the audience to new characters, the most prominent being Sofia (Halle Berry), who agrees to help John Wick because of a shared past. Such new characters seem like pawns in Stahelski's efforts at world-building rather than valuable additions to the story. “John Wick: Chapter 2” introduced the audience to a world where assassins follow a code of conduct, use their own currency, and stay in “consecrated” hotels. Stahelski puts a lot of effort into furthering this world, traveling to outposts abroad and deepening the mythology of the series with more information on how the "High Table" operates and how assassins function. While this world feels compelling, some of these set-up scenes feel forced against the high-octane action sequences.

Another shortcoming is that, like its predecessors, “Parabellum” features forgettable antagonists. The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), an enforcer for the High Table, and their main assassin recruit Zero (Mark Dacascos) never feel like insurmountable threats. Their dispensability is largely due to their flat, meager dialogue: The Adjudicator’s lines feel redundant and generic, and many of Zero’s lines are played for comic relief (with uneven results), which deeply undercut tension in the fight scenes between him and John Wick. Stahelski wants to achieve something more with these characters: He uses them to set up the theme of rules and order versus going rogue, but like their characterization, these themes are never fully explored. Still, "Parabellum" isn't meant to be a thought piece on power and control, even though it broaches such themes, so the lack of depth is somewhat forgivable.

Any of these issues would have been enough to sink a lesser movie to the realm of generic action blockbuster, but while its deficiencies in storytelling and character are noticeable, they don't distract from the overall experience. “Parabellum” is a movie that largely knows what it wants to be and succeeds in doing so, filling the screen with heart-stopping choreography and vibrant cinematography. It pushes the “John Wick” franchise to the forefront of the imagination as a cornerstone that disrupts the oft-generic, unwatchable Hollywood action genre.
—Staff writer Lanz Aaron G. Tan can be reached at lanzaaron.tan@thecrimson.com.

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