I can easily see some folks saying I’m missing the point of the John Wick movies when I ask for better story and characters. You go to see a John Wick movie for the action scenes, right? And if action scenes are all you care about, then you won’t be disappointed by the latest installment, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Director Chad Stahleski has an excellent handle on what these movies are in terms of their action. He knows how to raise the stakes within the set piece, maintain perfect geography, and provide a masterclass in stuntwork. I won’t deny that I was absolutely riveted during the action scenes in John Wick, and yet there’s a hollowness that pervades the movie as story and characters become an afterthought. Yes, the original John Wick existed on the thin premise of revenge for a dead puppy, but the leanness of the premise worked in tandem with the leanness of the filmmaking. Like its eponymous assassin, John Wick was ruthless and efficient. But as John Wick: Chapter 3 seeks to expand the world, it ends up making its characters and their stories seem smaller, especially in relation to the set pieces.
Parabellum picks up immediately where John Wick: Chapter 2 left off with Wick (Keanu Reeves) on the run after being declared excommunicado from his shadowy world of assassins because he killed a member of the High Table in the safe haven of the Continental Hotel. As Wick scrambles to stay alive with a $14 million bounty on his head and every assassin coming to kill him, the High Table sends The Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to settle matters with the Continental’s manager, Winston (Ian McShane), and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who assisted Wick, thus breaking the rules of the High Table. Along the way, John Wick kills lots of people in flashy ways.
“John Wick kills lots of people in flashy ways,” is the driving principle of the movie, and along this simple line, John Wick: Chapter 3 is an absolute success. If the Academy was smart and had a category for Best Stunts, no one else would even bother submitting because Parabellum would be such an obvious choice. What Stahleksi does here is nothing short of jaw-dropping from a knife fight to end all knife fights to a mind-blowing motorcycle chance to very good dogs working for Halle Berry, who plays an old colleague of Wick. If you were to cut out the rest of the movie and just had the action scenes, you’d have really fun, exciting stuff to watch.
But John Wick: Chapter 3 aims to be a narrative feature. There’s ostensibly a story and characters, and they don’t really get the attention they deserve to make this a worthwhile journey. The fundamental failing of Parabellum (a movie I still really enjoyed because of its technical craft and set pieces) is how it fails to really connect its action to its story. The action is perfunctory to the point where you may as well be playing a video game. There are brief “cut scenes” to tie the action together, but those don’t really serve much of a purpose. John Wick’s story in Parabellum is so slapped together that it lacks any weight. I honestly don’t know what his arc is in this movie and how he’s fundamentally different at the end than the beginning. I guess you can’t really change John Wick because he needs to keep killing people, but there’s way to upend his world and make you feel like you’ve been on a journey.
Instead, Parabellum just piles on the action, essentially shoving candy down your throat, which is delicious, but in no way nutritious or filling. And some people won’t mind because they didn’t primarily come to a John Wick movie for storytelling or character work. But I would counter that without those necessary aspects, the action is diminished. The first act of Parabellum is the best part of the movie because it has the propulsive drive of Wick on the run. He has character motivation. But then the movie doesn’t really know what to do with him, so his actions, which include shooting countless people in the head, lose their weight. At one point in the movie, John Wick has a long, expertly choreographed, two-on-one fight scene, and I was kind of bored because not only was it arriving about 20 minutes into a set piece, but because the stakes no longer really mattered. It was action for the sake of action, and nothing seemed to really affect the film’s protagonist.
For some, the action will be enough because the execution is so masterful. I’ll even admit it was enough for me for the first 40-60 minutes of the movie where I felt this might be the best John Wick yet. But without story and character to hang those set pieces on, Parabellum starts to feel more like a tech demo than a narrative feature. I like Keanu Reeves as an actor and I want to care about John Wick, but Chapter 3 seems at a loss for what he wants (his motives are flimsy at best) and how his actions affect his character. At the end of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, it feels like we’ve seen a lot of set pieces but very little change. There will be a few things that are different in the inevitable fourth installment, but right now the John Wick franchise feels a little stuck. It may be stuck in a place that’s able to deliver exhilarating action, but it’s also in a place where the only thing that will change are the style of the executions, not the executioner.