Updated: Jul 19, 2019
By Derek May:
YIN: John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum
What ratio of luck to talent has led Keanu Reeves to star in two franchises, decades apart, which have essentially redefined the action genre? In the wake of the first Matrix film in 1999, films packed their action sequences with slow motion visual spectacle and time-bending rotational shots until it almost become a punchline. Thus by 2014, the world was once again ready for something different, and stuntmen-turned-filmmakers David Leitch and Chad Stahelski were primed to give it to them.
Enter the gritty, hard-edged stylized action of John Wick, the world’s deadliest assassin brought out of retirement to avenge the death of his dog, the loss of his car, and the assault on the memory of his recently deceased wife. The use of hand-to-hand martial arts, including plenty of jiujutsu to please modern MMA fans, intermixed with close-quarters gun battles more faithful to elite military skills than previously put to screen, all framed with Hong-Kong style wideshots so you can really follow the beats, refreshed the genre and inspired a slew of homages and knockoffs. Audiences ate it up, and in turn set Keanu and the directors ablaze throughout Tinseltown.
The 2017 sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, proved the first was no fluke, as it maintained the same personalized storytelling while vastly expanding John’s sophisticated criminal underworld. Moving between New York and Rome and revealing the consequences of unbreakable obligations showed how intricately detailed and widespread this universe is. The action, too, elevated to ever-loftier heights and pushed John to his limits and beyond. But it was that ending, which saw John on the run with a $14 million bounty on his head and excommunicated from the sanctuary of the High Table that left audiences in breathless anticipation as to how the hell he was going to get out this one.
Now, with John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum, we have our answer.
Audiences hoping for a definitive resolution in Chapter 3 may be in for a shock. Though is it really? These movies have proved such a money-maker, it’s little surprise they would try to milk it for all it’s worth and extend it as far as audiences can stand. Thus, Parabellum feels less like the cap of a trilogy and more like the middle chapter of a much longer work.
The film sets off immediately following the events of the last, with John an hour away from having the entire city, nay the world, after his head. The majority of the plot, such as it is, follows John’s attempts to stay alive long enough to find a solution to this predicament of his own making; and as you’d expect, he can’t do it alone. He enlists plenty of help, including franchise newcomers Anjelica Huston and Halle Berry. And while this certainly affords an opportunity to continue expanding the domain around John, it actually ends up overwhelming, even minimizing, him as a character.
Over the course of the past two films, John Wick has been defined not only as a man of uncommon skill in the art of death, but also as a man at war within himself. The love of his wife soothed the savage beast enough that he chose to leave his former life, to live in peace. The actions of others might have temporarily reawakened the beast, but he’s constantly shown trying desperately to return to that quiet life once the necessary blood has been spilt.
John makes his own choices: whether to leave, to come back, or, yes, to break the rules and make himself a target. But always, his greatest desire is inexorably to return to that life of peace. Yet in Parabellum, as John shoots his way toward a resolution, the choices he makes seem counter to that desire. John is left to react more than choose, and even when he does, he is found to be little more than a pawn in a much larger game.
This is where the film departs from its predecessors. Regardless of the formidable forces set against him, the hero should still always be the active instigator of his own destiny, for better or worse. But throughout the film, John has little to no agency as a character. He’s essentially passive, at the whim of others as he fights against everything, rather than toward anything. The choices he’s presented with aren’t really choices at all, and John, as a character, is swallowed up both by the larger world of the High Table and by the supposedly supporting characters who are really calling the shots. While I won’t spoil the ending here, I will say that it does nothing to enhance John as a character (the opposite, in fact), and makes everything John has suffered essentially meaningless. The external stakes for John are clear, but there are little to no internal stakes, because those that are presented don’t really make any sense for the character we’ve followed thus far. John is defined by his circumstances, rather than by his desires.
And it’s not just John that suffers this problem: Ian McShane’s Continental manager Winston makes a major contribution throughout the film . . . that shows a completely contradictory nature to what’s been established thus far. The change, like much within the film, seems to be based on what the storytellers thought would seem “cool” rather than what would be honest and organic development. Or perhaps, it’s all merely setup for the proposed Continental spinoff series. Either way, by the end, John has descended into hell without much hope of resurfacing any time soon. This might work as an interlude in a larger story, but as a standalone film, leaves it a bit hollow.
What’s most frustrating is that it really wouldn’t have taken that much to correct the course. There is a relatively simple path that gives John that much-needed agency, satisfies Winston’s issues while keeping him in character, and keeps the door open for future installments (leave a comment if you want me to reveal this idea!). Alas . . .
But lest you think it’s all negative, there are indeed some truly impressive inclusions within this chapter. In continuity with the previous entries, we see the legitimate consequences of each character’s past actions and decisions. And the penalties are steep. The looming and insurmountable threat of the High Table is cemented not only in their reach, but in their knowledge and punishment of even the smallest infraction. In addition, we get a significant peak into John’s past without outright explaining too much, offering a satiating tidbit while leaving plenty of room for more exploration. We also get to visit with some of the other players within the larger organization, setting the stage for far more interactions in the inevitable future.
But hey, let’s be real here: most audiences aren’t that concerned with nitpicky character development or deconstruction of plot. They go to John Wick for that bone-shattering, blood-splattering action. And here, the film is well within its wheelhouse. With an ever-rising bar, the choreography of the sequences just keeps getting more mind-blowing. Just the thought of listing my favorite fights here finds me going, “Oh, but then there’s that one . . .” As the techniques get more sophisticated, the pace of the fights does occasionally slow slightly. If you’ve studied some of these techniques, you can see openings where people are waiting for cues and places where Keanu is half a beat behind, but it’s almost imperceptible and certainly understandable given that it’s really Keanu doing most of the fighting . . . at freakin’ 54!! I’d say it deserves some leeway. There’s really only one sequence that stands out for it’s obvious CGI and excessive implausibility (and feels a bit tacked on, as if there only to satisfy an action beat), but with so many sequences in one film, there’s bound to be a stinker. Still, it doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the masterful ballet of violence that solo-director Stahelski has crafted.
Despite my issues with the characters, there’s no questioning the performances of the actors behind them. McShane seems to revel in the role, offering that sly sophisticated gravitas he plies so well. Likewise, Lawrence Fishburne returns to chew the scenery as the Bowery King, raising him to near-Shakespearean levels of grandeur and ego. Game of Thrones vet Jerome Flynn makes an appearance that proves his impressive range, and Anjelica Huston is equal parts terrifying and commanding in a role that is sure to be broadened in subsequent films. And of course, Lance Reddick continues to steal every scene as concierge Charon—and this time, he gets to have a little fun himself.
But most impressive to me was Halle Berry as the deadly and uncompromising Sofia. The physical demands of the role are evident, as is Berry’s commitment to meeting them with precision and confidence. The training she went through alongside Keanu pays off, and she looks every bit as badass as her co-star. And speaking of, Mark Dacascos steps out of the Iron Chef kitchen to return full bore to the genre that made him a star. His martial skills haven’t diminished one iota over the years, but I was a little on the fence about his character approach for a while until it was pointed out what a subversive take he was creating, and his genius was suddenly made clear. I also have to give a shout out to two martial artists I’ve respected for a while, Indonesian actors Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman. These two Pencak Silat practitioners blew me away when I first saw them in the Raid films, and give fun, exciting performances here giving Keanu a run for his money. And on a personal level, seeing my former Spurs favorite Boban Marjanovic taking on the baba yaga gave me an undeniable giddy thrill (we still love you in SA, Boban!).
As for Keanu himself, well, he’s never been the world’s greatest thespian, but he tends to do well in roles that play to his strengths. He’s no slouch in the action department, and he looks great whether punching, shooting, driving, or just sneering with tough-guy intensity. In the lighter scenes, however, he seems considerably less at ease than he did when you see his initial performance in the original (seriously, watch that film again and notice his relaxed, and often humorous, delivery). But, in fairness, John has had a rough few weeks since then, and that’s bound to make anybody a little uptight. Which is why I’m looking forward to the creators working in some time off for John to rest, heal, and return to form before the next film. A fully functional, rested, and rust-free John Wick should be something to truly wondrous behold.
Ultimately, I would argue that from an action standpoint, Parabellum is the best of the bunch so far, clearly finding ever-more incredible ways to stage these deadly encounters. From a plot and character standpoint, however, I would argue it’s the weakest, sacrificing substance for spectacle and eschewing the emotional depth, logical development, and relatable motivations they’ve so masterfully constructed till now. I still love this franchise, and I’ll still buy my opening weekend tickets for the just announced Chapter Four (scheduled for May 21, 2021). But I can only hope that Stahelski and company aren’t beginning to stretch themselves too thin. I still believe Stahelski has it in him to deliver both quality action and quality characters (I have to believe this as a Highlander fan hoping he doesn’t screw up the remake he’s attached to direct), and with future opportunities to do so, he’ll have his chance to prove it. With Keanu on board to make as many as they’ll let him, John Wick won’t face the reaper any time soon, and hopefully Parabellum will prove a minor bump in an otherwise impeccable road.
YANG: The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
It’s hard to say which is more surreal, the finished film of The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, or the journey it took to get there. The text at the start claims the film took 25 years to complete, and that’s not an exaggeration. By some measures, it’s underselling it. The first attempts were begun in 1989, with Johnny Depp in the lead. Since then, floods, deaths, and financial difficulties hampered the production at various times, all of which is detailed in the behind the scenes documentary Lost in La Mancha released in 2002. That’s right, the making of the film was released over a decade before the actual film.
Like I said, surreal.
But now we can say we finally live a world where The Man Who Killed Don Quixote exists, for better or worse. I say this because if you’re at all familiar with the works of writer-director Terry Gilliam, you likely understand that he revels in the absurd and delights in the subversion of reality. Since his days with Monty Python, Gilliam has pushed the envelope in regards to philosophical surrealism with ever-increasing vigor. Audiences, however, are often divided on the results. I myself find some of his work absolutely brilliant, and some of it completely unwatchable.
So with nearly three decades to get it right, how does Don Quixote rank among the pantheon? For me, somewhere in the middle.
The film is certainly crafted with a deft amount of care, specificity, and technical precision, but it’s also delivered in a free-form abstractness that makes it hard to comprehend and wildly open to interpretation. Objectively, we understand that the film follows Toby Grisoni (Adam Driver), an American filmmaker who’s returned to film a soulless commercial on the same Spanish grounds where ten years earlier he films a low-budget student film about Don Quixote. In the interim, Toby has seemingly abandoned his artistic convictions in favor of fame, accolades, and frivolous relationships with both his work and those around him. Confronted by this change and the effects his bygone film has had on the original cast, Toby becomes embroiled in the delusion of his former star, a cobbler named Javier (Jonathan Pryce) who now truly believes he is Don Quixote and that Toby is his Sancho Panza, leading Toby down an ever-spiraling decent into insanity and destruction.
As for what the film is about thematically, that’s a much harder question to answer. It is purposely left up to interpretation, and I don’t want to color anyone’s opinion too much, but in general, there are certain aspects that seem somewhat obvious. The issue of sanity, of who is crazy and who is not, it a clear issue throughout the film. At first, the audience seems fairly certain which are which, but over the course the roles seems to shift. A man living the life of a chivalrous, noble, knight out to better the world around him doesn’t seem as disturbing as those who sadistically revel in the pains of others, or those who enable or accept such behavior. Toby slowly seems to realize that he may be on the wrong side of reality, and it takes love, compassion, and understanding to live a life truly free.
There’s also the consideration that madness is somewhat contagious, or at the very least, the specific madness of Don Quixote. There’s a circular infection that seems to stem from Toby’s molding of Javier into Don Quixote, and Quixote’s influence in return on Toby. The end result is simultaneously joyously cathartic and achingly tragic.
While much of this can be categorized as artistic eccentricity that creates a beautiful, ethereal tableau, some aspects feel decidedly pedestrian, even borderline aggravating. Toby, for example, is not a particularly likable character throughout, certainly not before achieving his arc and arguably not even after. Parts of him are certainly relatable, such as his attempts to do what he perceives as right despite not actually understanding why, but his constant abrasiveness is grating. Driver does a noteworthy job of trying to soften some of the more despicable aspects of the character with humor and a sort of immature defiance. But it really can only do so much. Toby’s greatest humanity and likability is often more in relation to how he observes people treating Javier/Quixote. And here, Pryce exudes a masterful sympathetic character, a man trapped seemingly aware in his own madness, but chooses insanity over a far more drab reality. But there’s a price, and ultimately Toby’s witnessing of it is what spurs him to his end.
Another notable issue is the treatment of the film’s female characters. Angelica, the lead and Toby’s love interest, is given a wholly tragic journey that never sees her truly rising out of the role of victim and pawn. Young Portuguese thesp Joana Ribeiro undoubtedly gives the role her all, and plays a spectrum of ages and emotions with superb expertise. But the character as written rarely makes a positive decision of her own, and feels ultimately doomed to servitude and heartbreak. Similarly, Olga Kurylenko’s Jacqui serves little more than a mindless succubus, in place merely to distract and cause trouble for some of the men folk. Even the only other major speaking female, Melissa (Paloma Boyd) is treated dismissively, her name never gotten right by any male character and her final act one of eye-rolling disappointment.
All that being said, each actor gives their all, and the performances are a delight to witness. While we will never see what might have been had Depp, Ewan McGregor, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, or Vanessa Paradis inhabited their respective roles, the cast assembled was by no means second fiddle. Driver cements his talent for off-kilter characters, and Pryce nearly brings us to tears by expressing the underlying conflict within Javier with a simple look. Stellan Skarsgård chews the scenery as Toby’s boss, equal parts scary and impotent, and Spanish artist Jordi Mollà is terrifying as a sadistic Russian businessman.
Ultimately, was it worth the vast amount of time, money, and effort to bring this tale to life? That’s hard to say. Art can arguably be worth any price. And Gilliam certainly has the means, dedication, and vision to bring his art to life. But I’m not sure if the world is better off or not with the film being made, or if those resources would have been better utilized on another project. It’s likely a question that has no answer. In the end, as Gilliam always intended, it’s really up to the audience to decide. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote is as interesting, flawed, funny, delusional, intriguing, and occasionally misguided as the man himself who refused to let it die.