John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019) by Chad Stahelski
Review by Logan Kenny
Who do you want to die as?
The ending of The House That Jack Built involves the titular Jack disregarding the guidance of his protector in the underworld and embarking on a cursed journey to climb back to the mortal realm, where he is destined to fall down into the endless pit of hell. He dooms himself to a worse fate than he’d earned because he’s unable to let go of the idea of having a life again – of this not being everything he’d spent his life building up towards. There is nothing but darkness below or above; no matter how high he climbs, he will fall. The slip is predetermined. We all die one day.
John Wick is a character in a franchise that’s never been afraid to show its influences in classical literature and theology: the golden coins used as a form of passage into another realm, the verbal references to Dante, the architecture where the warfare takes place being seemingly designed to reflect the layers of hell, etc. Wick is the man who climbed to the top and left, yet is forever haunted by the memories of the flames and what they taught him. He is unable to fully let go of the place that shaped him into the being he is today – partially due to the actions of others, but mostly because of the fact that he craves violence. Violence is something he understands, that he can perform without thinking. Other aspects of life require self-examination and too much spare time for the bad memories to consume your soul. Guilt is infectious and spreads in silence, and as much as he tries, our hero cannot take the quiet life without the demons in his own mind and around his own being coming to torture him once more. You cannot leave hell twice.
The innate contradiction of the John Wick series is the contrast between the subject (how violence is depressing and dooming for the protagonist), and the form (framing the action committed by the subject as something entertaining and the ostensible purpose of the whole production). Wick’s entire existence is based on a contradiction: the hypocrisy committed by the creators and experienced by the viewers, who continue cheering on the elaborate sequences of violence while feeling pain over the consequences this takes on the person administering them. Parabellum doesn’t offer any answers for this. There is fundamental pleasure in seeing Wick break down a series of faceless antagonists with his almost superhuman combat/strategizing abilities, but the way the film breaks him down scene by scene – until he’s little more than blood and bone – is incredibly melancholic.
John Wick started a path of vengeance because of losing the last thing that kept his long lost love alive to him. He witnessed her die, then saw his memories of her die, and now she exists as a photo hidden in a book as his justification for slaughter. By Parabellum, he’s lost the ability to make excuses. He’s fundamentally aware of the type of man he is now. He begs anyone who can help him for their assistance – grovelling on his knees, taking bullets through his flesh, even giving up his own free will for a chance at living again. He is aware that there is nothing he can do be a better man, and that he will die fighting, surrounded by dozens of bloody bodies. Yet, he continues to push himself forward out of the memory for the love he’s lost, so that someone on this earth keeps her image alive. There’s something resonant of Orpheus in how John composes himself, the Orpheus who failed to save his love after escaping the Underworld. Now he wanders the plains of reality, drenched in his own self loathing and loneliness, desperate to keep some memories of her intact or finally die so he can drift off into the River Styx and unite with the angel that he let go.
The existentialist conflict that Wick goes through is one that we all face in life after loss: the desire to sacrifice our futures or identities for the sake of some form of catharsis over their death. While John has participated in his murderous escapades out of revenge, something more fundamental forms in the aftermath. He doesn’t want to die because he doesn’t know if she’ll be there waiting for him at the gates of Hell, or if there’s anything there at all. He wants to keep himself breathing – even if that means becoming a slave to the world she wanted him to leave – so that he has as long as possible to dream her at night and believe that she’s still with him. The rejection of that stasis, that desire to halt the natural progression of your life and death for something no longer beside you, is the sign that maybe one day he can die at peace.
Parabellum is interested in the carnage of the violence that John commits undeniably. Most of the action sequences are based around the brutality that John’s expertise can allow him to inflict. He breaks someone’s neck off of a hardcover book, uses the blunt end of blades to cave his enemies’ skulls in, and even uses a horse’s strength to catapult people in his way into concrete. The film tends not to linger in the suffering of death for his opposition; once their lives are taken away, their pain and purpose is over. For Wick himself, it’s different. Almost excessive amounts of screentime are devoted to the pain that he is subjected to: a burning cross grinded against his back, a finger chopped off and cauterised with a red hot poker, and, in one of the best scenes of the film, being thrown through five panes of glass like he’s Shane McMahon in King of the Ring 2001. John gets battered bloody, his limbs bruised and torn to shreds, until by the final few minutes, he’s a wounded soldier limping to a place of safety that no longer exists. This damage is perfectly sold by Keanu, arguably the American actor who most understands the importance of physical acting in selling a performance. He bumps around like his life is on the line and sells every punch and kick like it’s life-threatening. His performance is what takes these films into another level, expressing a level of skill and vulnerability through knee strikes and posture more than most actors can do with their faces.
Much has been made of Reeves and Chad Stahelski’s influence from MMA in creating the hand to hand combat, with Wick implementing rolling Fujiwara armbars multiple times, using ground and pound tactics and utilizing limbwork to dismantle an opponent from top to bottom. While this is clear, I’d argue that the exaggerated performances and intense psychology in the major fights are closer to professional wrestling. Reeves, by the final stages of the third act, looks like a wrestler selling a 45-minute epic, covered in blood and sweat and looking like all the liquor in the world couldn’t numb the pain. The differing dynamics help increase the tension; similar to wrestling, Wick’s fights are all different in terms of combat styles and psychological effect. A triple threat with two masterful fighters who clearly admire John’s legend is all about respect instead of living or dying, making it an almost welcome alleviation from the chaos on all sides. The final showdown is motivated by the ostensible antagonist’s desire to prove himself as better to his hero by being the one to end the legend, finding a twisted sense of joy when approaching his death for pushing Wick to the limits of his mind and body. At times, John Wick reminded me of the greatest wrestler of all time, Katsuyori Shibata, in the way he administers and took punishment. Shibata retired in a blaze of glory through health issues, as a stiff headbutt near the end of one of the best pro wrestling matches of all time nearly killed him. He returned to the ring, to a huge ovation, several months later and said, “I am alive. That is all.” I hope Wick can say the same when his wars are over – that he can walk away and have a normal life after all the pains of this fucked up world are done with him. Parabellum suggests that that life could happen, but it is more morose in accepting that Wick is going to die on this path. Because if not now, it’ll be sometime down the road. You can’t cheat death forever; one day you fall like everyone else.
The film isn’t perfect – some of the extended attempts at worldbuilding don’t quite coalesce, especially a subplot with Angelica Huston that feels perfunctory. It’s less assured and seamless as its direct predecessor and lacks the simplistic emotional throughline of the original entry, favouring a messier, shaggier approach which doesn’t always hit flawlessly. However, the faults aren’t what stick with me days after finishing it, and they likely aren’t what I’ll think of months from now. I’ll think of the immaculate action choreography, the gnarliness of its brutality, the incredible set design / lighting, the profound melancholy that overwhelms by the final act, and how funny it often is! Mostly though, I’ll be thinking of Keanu. There are few moments in modern American cinema that have devastated me more than simple line deliveries by him in this film – the way you feel him grappling with the weight of existence. Some days it becomes hard to get up in the morning, the surges of regret and agony become too overwhelming to consider continuing living this way. Sometimes, we’re all like John, lying in a pile of our own regrets and scars. But we slowly rise, no matter what has been done to us, and keep moving. For those we love, for those we’ve lost, for the moments of bliss found in our lifetime, whatever it is, we stand up and keep moving. One day we’ll die, how that will be is up to fate or God or whatever you believe in. But for now, we can force ourselves up and unleash our anger and keep on feeling with every ounce of humanity we have left until we’re out of time. Yeah I’m pissed off. A life is now about something more than death.