I Deserve To Have My Ass Kicked By John Wick For Not Taking His Movies Seriously
A reimaging of the classic samurai genre, there's a lot more going on in the John Wick franchise than just non-stop killing and one-liners.
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A couple of months ago, I was driving to a wedding in Carmel with a good and very long-time friend of mine. We were bullshitting about pretty much everything and having some great laughs as the Northern California scenery blasted by. Movies came up and he asked if I am excited for the new John Wick movie coming out. I laughed in his face, I said "aren't those like made for video schlock action films? You are kidding right?" He was stunned I hadn't even seen one! I promised him I would check the first one out when I got home. Thankfully, I remembered to make good on that promise because my assumptions were totally wrong.
The first installment of the Keanu Reeves-driven franchise was so interesting that I watched the second the next night. It too was damn good. What I walked away with was the realization that like me, I think many people either misunderstand these films or never even gave them a chance in the first place. They are way smarter than they are made out to be and feature many of the most amazing action sequences I have ever seen in my life.
The newest entrant into the saga, John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum, is no different. In fact, just its title, "Parabellum"—Latin for "prepare for war"—tells the audience what to be ready for and it delivers it in spades.
The John Wick franchise is very much a modern and fairly genius reimagining on Japan's Samurai Cinema genre that had a heavy impact on, and was heavily impacted by, its American counterpart—the Spaghetti Western. Instead of a Ronin wondering the Japanese countryside looking for peace—or revenge—John Wick does the same on the assassin-filled streets of Manhattan. Handguns largely take the place of samurai swords and assault rifles for arrows.
I was introduced to Samurai Cinema via what I thought would be a laughably easy history course in college—yes, University Of Oregon had a 300 level history course called Samurai In Film! It turns out, it was far tougher than I predicted. If you weren't familiar with Japanese names you were pretty much screwed. It actually ended up being the lowest grade I received during college. How embarrassing is that? Regardless, it was here that the history of and all the themes surrounding Samurai Cinema were beaten into me.
With this in mind, while screening the first John Wick installment and sitting there trying to figure out what the hell I was watching, the specters of my scholastic past crept in and I had a nagging sensation that this was all very familiar. Well, it was and in an awesome way.
Other influences are there, including some of the violent classics from the 1970s, like Dirty Harry, Enter The Dragon, and revenge genre films like Death Wish—both franchises in their own right. One can't also help but think of Quentin Tarantino and his love and use of similar genres when evaluating John Wick films, but the connections aren't direct beyond similar themes and certain reality-bending premises.
Another heavy influence on these films is the Film Noire genre and for all the right reasons. As the series progresses, the cinematography and production lean more heavily on this style of atmosphere to spectacular effect. John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum is a gorgeous film regardless if you like the story, violence, or the entire concept, or not. In fact, it leaps off the screen more than anything I have seen in recent years. Once again there is more going on here than just nonstop action sequences, Keanu Reeves getting slapped around, and exhilarating chases.
So, no, John Wick isn't Fast And The Furious, a film franchise I have come to detest. Far, far from it, in fact.
Parabellum even retroactively elevates the first two films that basically set up its premise and do the necessary world building to jump-start what will be the next phase in the John Wick story, which is as much about an alternate reality where a vast and ancient underground network of assassins and their support infrastructure operate all over the globe than it is about a dude caught up in his own nightmare of a revenge arch. This expanding world makes John Wick a richer and more enjoyable franchise as it infuses a comic book vibe into what otherwise would be a most dreary and somewhat confusing affair.
Let's get to the bloody heart of these films—the fight scenes. Actually, they aren't really fight scenes as much as they are highly choreographed battle ballets. Whereas most fight scenes these days are shot with fast cuts, tons of camera shake, and tight angles, John Wick films go the exact opposite direction. Wide shots that often run uncut for long periods of time turn close-range gunshots, rapid knife strikes, and hand-to-hand violence into a stunning cinematic artform.
It's not just Keanu Reeves' fantastic and brutal performance that will enthrall you, but all the incredible martial artists and stuntmen and stuntwomen that make it look so... Real. These are incredibly talented athletes doing some remarkably dangerous sequence in an unforgiving filming environment. I can't stress enough how awesome the casting department is for finding such formidable and colorful opponents for Wick to beat the shit out of. It literally makes these movies.
Still, among the hundreds of footsoldiers, ninjas, and cutthroats that Wick takes on in Parabellum, as well as his limited array of reluctant allies, a pair of K9s steals the show entirely. One protracted battle, in particular, has you rooting for a pair of dogs above any human on screen. This is truly creative and fun film making that uses set pieces to shine in unique ways, not just to prime another battle royale and move the plot along to its next stage.
Don't get me wrong, John Wick films are not about nitpicking its stutters in realism, in fact, part of the fun is checking that section of your brain at the box office counter. It's like getting on a great E-ticket ride at a theme park. Yeah, you see the tracks in the darkness and sure you know none of it is real or that realistic, but you are too busy enjoying the bumps, drops, scares, sounds, and awesome surroundings along the way to give a shit.
Yet what's most uncanny about these movies is that they focus your attention is such a way on certain elements and are just plausible enough to keep from forcing your mind into the Fast And The Furious realm of disbelief. This is really another key component to their success. They "don't jump the shark" necessarily, but they do constantly hop over smaller fish to the point that you don't really notice it, or you don't really care.
Now onto Keanu. From being such a huge star starting with Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure through the Matrix films, he seemed kind of washed up until John Wick matured into what it is now. Looking back, that is also a near criminal assumption. He puts every ounce of himself into these films. It hurts watching nearly every fight sequence even though you know the punches and crashes aren't supposed to be landing with their full potential in real life. This is ridiculously physical film making and he has become an absolute master at his trade in this regard.
Most of all, thank goodness these movies rely heavily on real people and physical effects, not tired and hokey CGI. It literally ups the stakes even though it has nothing to do directly with the screenplay. We want to see real martial artists throwing actual punches and swinging actual swords, not some video game rendition of one (or many!). The production team on John Wick movies get this, or at least they have had to go this route because these movies are made at a fraction of the cost of huge Hollywood blockbusters that actually feature less numerous and lower quality action sequences.
Some think Reeves' lines are corny in John Wick movies—of which there are probably only a couple paragraphs total in each film. But that's the entire point of the genre and the character. He is a broken man of few to no words, with revenge driving his every act. It's over the top because it is supposed to be and it works marvelously. Simple statements like "I'm going to," "no you're not," and even "yes" are pivotal moments in the films and they are usually the most fun, too.
So, when it comes to Parabellum, you probably have seen many knife fights in movies—but not like this. You have seen loads of motorcycle chases before—but not like this. You have seen a fight underwater before—but NEVER like this.
In the end, John Wick Parabellum is by far the best entry into the series. It isn't perfect, there are some areas that could have been edited down a bit and some unneeded components, but boy is it damn good and I believe it may very well go down as one of the best action movies of all time. At times it is downright beautiful even when it is at its ugliest. But above all else, it's fun! We are all in on the joke while at the same time respecting what goes into what we are watching at any given time. Few films have achieved such a high-functioning duality.
Instead of getting tired as it rolls into its second trilogy, John Wick is getting better with age. Now that it has finally broken through at the box office, and is blowing holes in dumbass preconceived notions like my own, it is downright exciting to think where this 'little action franchise that could' goes next.
Rogoway's review rating: 8G out of 9G:
John Wick Chapter Three: Parabellum is in theaters now.