The John Wick films are the premiere action franchise on the planet right now.
Sure, the Mission: Impossible films are bigger. And I love those films dearly. But the John Wick films are an underdog story… and I always root for the underdog. It helps that star Keanu Reeves has somehow managed to feel like a scrappy and loveable underdog for his entire expansive career. It also helps that director Chad Stahelski has made the rare leap from career stunt professional to sought-after director. Most importantly, John Wick sprung forth from humble beginnings in 2014. With a $20 million reported production budget on the first film, and with Reeves amidst a minor lull in his career, the world simply didn’t see John Wick coming. But when the Baba Yaga raked in over twice its production budget domestically, was widely loved by theater goers and critics alike, and legitimately revitalized the action cinema landscape, it sparked a minor phenomenon. John Wick Chapter 2 improved on the original in virtually every way, was released in more theaters than the first, and earned over twice what the first film made domestically. Perhaps most applicable to Parabellum, Chapter 2 expanded upon a wider world of underground criminals and assassins established in the first film, making the story and scope of the sequel orders of magnitude more complex. Improbably, the grander scope gave rise to more remarkable action set pieces, and left audiences dangling off a cliff as the end credits rolled.
And Parabellum is here to deliver. The entire first act will pay off that cliffhanger ending in a way that’s so far beyond satisfying I lack the words to even describe it. Wick is desperate to escape New York City with his life once he’s declared “excommunicado” by the High Table for spilling blood on Continental grounds at the end of the second chapter. He’s got just minutes to enact a plan. There are horses involved. And about a thousand blades. There’s a book-murder in there, and some ballerinas. It’s simply awe inspiring. Perhaps my only quibble with Parabellum is that it feels a little bit front loaded with how pure and jaw-dropping the first act truly is. The great secret of the John Wick franchise, however, is that it’s building a world that is as intriguing and entertaining as its groundbreaking action sequences. So when the furious pace of the first act can’t entirely be sustained…the storytellers just go bigger.
And it works. Parabellum broadens the scope of John Wick’s world exponentially. And largely to enjoyable effect. Perhaps doing a better job of organically building up a cinematic universe than any other series being crafted under the Marvel shadow, the rules and governance of the fantastical underworld that Wick and his various victi…I mean, friends…occupy are as interesting and entertaining as the cartoon characters that occupy it. In the film’s marketing, much is made of the introduction of Halle Berry’s Sofia character, as well as her killer dogs. Berry does fantastic work in long, unbroken action takes, holding her own alongside Reeves. The dogs steal the show, no doubt, in a mind blowing sequence featuring John and Sofia fighting in tandem with trained attack dogs assisting. But another ace up Parabellum’s sleeve is that Sofia is just one of a host of new characters introduced successfully into this chapter. Action movie legend Mark Dacascos (Brotherhood Of The Wolf, Drive) gets a lead role here as Zero, a master killer commissioned by the High Table to not only kill John Wick, but also to punish all the people who helped Wick in Chapter 2. Zero is kind of an inverse character to Common’s Cassian. As Wick and Cassian fought in the last chapter, there was a clear mutual respect and past friendship between them. Here, Zero hero-worships John and desperately seeks his approval even as he tries to murder him. Wick can’t stand Zero, despite Zero’s clear physical capability as a killer. Zero has an army of henchmen, a couple of which are gentlemen from the fighting team behind the Raid movies, who are obviously fantastic. We’re also shown a new level of underworld bureaucracy as Asia Kate Dillon portrays “The Adjudicator” for the High Table. It is the Adjudicator who sics Zero on Winston (Ian McShane), the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and John. There are other new characters and labyrinthine underworld social norms that propel the story forward in entertaining and fascinating ways as well, but I’ll save those for you to experience yourself.
Thematically, Parabellum also has some exciting stuff going on thanks to the screenplay from Derek Kolstad, Shay Hatten, Chris Collins, and Mark Abrams. As the world expands, so do the interesting ideas and character dynamics. Chapter 2 introduced us to “markers,” oath-binders that required John Wick to stay in the game because of a debt he owed. Where the rules of John Wick felt like they provided some freedoms to its characters, such as the sanctuary of the Continental, Parabellum’s High Table clearly feels oppressive with its labyrinthine rules and inflexibility. The joy of Parabellum is the almost certain eventuality that John and his conspirators will be forced to overturn the table. There’s a rebellious spirit to Parabellum that feels especially satisfying in this current political hellscape where virtually everyone on any side of the political aisle has something to rage about against the powers that be.
But as much as fascinating world-building and themes combined with colorful characters portrayed by a murderer’s row of incredible actors are key ingredients to the ongoing success of the John Wick franchise…we’re all here for the action. And yes, Parabellum ups the ante significantly in that regard. Visually striking, largely executed by the actors themselves, and creative in its variety, it’s the action sequences that make the John Wick series stand out from the masses.
One would almost think it impossible that a genre-defining and boundary-pushing film series built almost entirely around head shots and long-takes could continue to refine and entertain. After all, a body count can only be accumulated in so many ways. But against all logic, the team at 87Eleven, the geniuses behind the immersive style of action the John Wick franchise has unleashed upon the world, have continued to bring their A-game. Part of the secret sauce is the long, fluid takes utilized, along with the intense training that the lead actors undergo in order to perform the fights themselves. This allows the action to be captured clearly and thrillingly by the cameras, and nullifies the need for fight doubles. We see the actors doing the work.
Another key ingredient, however, and a major reason why Parabellum is a worthy new entry in the premiere action franchise on planet earth, is the sincere expertise of the history of the genre that birthed this franchise, and the deep homage it presents viewers. This is glorious action filmmaking that is converting today’s postmodern audience to pure action cinema while also referencing that which came before it. Recent mind-blowing Korean action film The Villainess, for instance, featured an incredible sword fight atop speeding motorcycles which Parabellum is undoubtedly riffing on in its own similar sequence. There’s also a lovely homage to action god Bruce Lee in featuring a complicated “hall of mirrors” sequence towards the end of the film that calls to mind Enter The Dragon, and even a scenario where Wick must fight various villains on different levels of a building that feels very Game Of Death.
Stahelski, Reeves, Kolstad, cinematographer Dan Lausten, the 87Eleven team, and the entire cast and crew obviously love action cinema. They humbly draw inspiration from the incredible tradition that has come before them. And they push the limits of what’s ever been done before to bring us such distinctive action sequences that the John Wick franchise has already become a watershed series that will forever impact the action films that come after it. That they’re unabashedly R-rated, frequently hilarious, build an intriguing world, and leave us panting for more every time are icing on the cake.
Parabellum splits wide open the world that Chapter 2 revealed. Pacing-wise, while it might be somewhat front-loaded, it continues to innovate and fascinate. With nothing off-limits in this world, featuring fists, blades, guns, bullet-proof suits, vehicular mayhem, and even horse-fu, it’s clear that the John Wick franchise has plenty of gas left in its tank. Action fans the world over will continue awaiting each new chapter with baited breath.
And I’m Out.