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Some of the greatest performers in the history of film may not have been the greatest actors or actresses, but they etched their place in history by their sheer gift of physical ability. The names range from silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Buster Keaton, to modern stars like Jackie Chan or even the insane being that is Tom Cruise. It’s high time that we recognize Keanu Reeves as one of the best physical performers of all time, a position built upon The Matrix and John Wick franchises and solidified beyond compare in the punctuation-happy titled John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum.
Much like the character of John Wick, Reeves is an actor of focus, commitment, and, at times, sheer will. His desire to train and put his body through the rigorous motions that it takes to anchor not one but two major action franchises is something that should be applauded. That those two franchises turned out to be some of the best of their generation, well that’s something to be in awe of. Although there are many pieces at work, Reeves is at the heart of what makes Parabellum an absolute masterpiece of violence.
Picking up mere minutes after the end of John Wick: Chapter 2, Parabellum finds the Baba Yaga on the run from pretty much every assassin in the world trying to get a piece of him for a $14 million bounty. Not only does he have to contend with his head in everyone’s crosshairs, but he has to find his way back out of his excommunicado status in the world of killers. Where the original was about revenge, and the second was about facing your past, Parabellum is all about survival, moving forward to stay breathing to keep the memories of the good times alive as well.
Not enough can be said about just how damn good Keanu Reeves is as John Wick. He wears his emotions plain on his face, and the script is smart enough to give him only a few, short instances of dialogue, instead letting his physicality do the heavy lifting. Reeves is a force to behold, oftentimes being a clear participant in the fights and stuntwork, holding his own against some of the most gifted martial artists in the world, including his own martial arts mentor, Tiger Chen.
The Wick universe is also blessed to have a growing cast of characters that are simply awesome. Returning faces like Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, and Laurence Fishburne are still absolutely crushing it, each having a blast with their time on screen. Even still, the world around John Wick grows, and that brings us even more colorful personalities to flesh out the expanding areas.
Halle Berry serves as the most notable addition, nearly equaling Reeves in physical prowess in a handful of her scenes. Her dog-loving character is as big of a badass as John Wick, and their relationship is one of mutual tension and respect. Martial arts mainstay and former Iron Chef Chairman Mark Dacascos brings a surprisingly playful excitement as Zero, the main assassin tasked with taking down Wick.
Asia Kate Dillion brings her Taylor Mason-esque curtness into the fold as an Adjudicator for the governing body of the assassin world known as The High Table. Anjelica Huston, Saïd Taghmaoui, and Robin Lord Taylor also serve as various members of that high order. My only complaint is that the brilliant Jason Mantzoukas only gets a few moments in the film, and he should be getting much more. That being said, there’s a lot of time to be split, so I get it.
Parabellum, as with the John Wick franchise as a whole, has another huge advantage in director Chad Stahelski, producing partner David Leitch, and screenwriter Derek Kolstad. Kolstad has somehow found a way to simplify the characters and expand the world and mythology in a way that is never suffocating. With each new entry, there are new rules revealed, new power players that come into the fray, and none of them come at the expense of the gratifying action.
That action is mostly due to Stahelski, who also has served as Reeves stunt double for a number of previous films. While Stahelski and Leitch co-directed the first entry, Stahelski has since taken the reigns quite literally. His camera follows the action cleanly, giving the audience a full idea of what is happening. The direction on display, much like Reeves, cannot be praised enough, as it offers a perfect combination of hard-hitting intensity and borderline humorous violence. The fight sequences in this film are staged with such glee and skill that you cannot help but belly laugh at some of the depictions of violence, some sequences of which I struggle to think of any equal. John Wick, as a character, as a force of nature, is just so good at killing people that you’re practically giddy seeing how the next poor bastard is going to get taken out.
The film also does an excellent job of upping the ante, not only in quantity of foes thrown at Wick, but quality as well. Sure, the High Table is further fleshed out with amazing acting talented, but even the faceless henchman are progressively upgraded, from knife-wielding killers to motorcycle-riding swordsmen to hit squads clad in body armor. Each enemy provides a new wrinkle from Wick to overcome, rather than just continuously shooting everyone in the head. The film is almost like a video game in that regard, raising the difficulty level until Wick gets to the final boss.
It doesn’t hurt that Parabellum is gorgeously photographed, either. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen brings vibrant colors and stark contrasts whether the action occurs in the rain-soaked streets of New York or the deserts of Morocco. Laustsen and Stahelski prove to be an impeccable team, shooting action wide, letting everyone in on it, able to see every hit, stab, shot, and slice.
Parabellum, for all it’s dizzying action, also carries the weight of the previous entries. As previously stated, John Wick is on a mission of pure survival, staying ahead of the game long enough to give him a chance to escape it. His reasoning ties all the way back to the original, and because of that, it brings the audience in on it’s primal emotions of love, loss, and yearning for what was. It’s a simple and effective motivation for the walking embodiment of death, and it gives depth to all the headshots. None of the delightful carnage would register nearly as well as if we didn’t care about the characters involved or the world they inhabited.
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum continues upping the ante and driving the upward trend of not just the John Wick series, but of the Keanu-ssance that I believe to be in full swing. I challenge you to find me any Oscar-winning performance that rivals the physical execution of what Reeves is doing right now. Like the character of John Wick, and the franchise and world in which he inhabits, Reeves is on another level.
The Final Pop
John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum is a gleefully violent symphony of carnage with some all-time action. Led by a commanding physical performance from Keanu Reeves and a supporting cast that is up to his level, director Chad Stahelski continues building on a world of assassins and the rules that govern them to increasingly glorious results.