‘John Wick 3’ Is Exhausting, Exhilarating
Stuntman-turned-director delivers a gorgeously shot and choreographed action film
Thursday, May 16, 2019
Buster Keaton Films (any of them)
"The Matrix" (1999)
"The Raid" (2012)
"John Wick" (2014)
"John Wick 2" (2017)
The third chapter in the John Wick saga arrives this week and ramps up the action to new heights.
The trailers and posters for “John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum” teased audiences with a countdown to the action with the tagline of “Tick tock Mr. Wick.” Well the clock has finally counted down those final seconds and the third chapter arrives in theaters Thursday.
Not since the Indonesian film “The Raid” have I felt so exhausted and exhilarated by an action film. “John Wick 3” raises the bar on fight choreography by adding canines doing doggie-fu, gunfights on horseback, katana wielding motorcyclists and more.
Wick, played once again by Keanu Reeves, continues to face the consequences for his violent rampage of revenge over the killing of his puppy two films ago. As a dog lover I felt he was totally justified. At the end of “Chapter 2,” we found Wick, the hit man who had come out of retirement to avenge his puppy, had broken one of the key rules of The Continental Hotel (which caters to assassins) and has now been deemed “excommunicado.” With an ever-increasing bounty on his head Wick is on the run and facing a constant barrage of assassins that he must fight off in such unlikely locations as the New York Public Library (never underestimate the power of a hefty volume of Russian folk tales) and in such novel ways as with a belt or pencil.
Stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski delivers one of the most gorgeously shot and choreographed action films ever as he elevates Wick’s saga to ridiculously epic proportions. Wick was described in the first film as a kind of boogeyman who can take someone out with a pencil and can execute a hit with the most lethal efficiency and just disappear. The first film racked up an outrageous number of kills in breathtaking fashion then Stahelski upped the ante in "Chapter 2." And as much as those films strained credibility in terms of the kind of abuse Wick could take and still remain alive, "Chapter 3" is even more audacious in terms of what they subject him to and yet he continues to walk away. Granted in this latest outing, he is showing more wear and tear.
Sequels versus originals
While I have enjoyed these sequels, neither one compares to the original in terms of elegant simplicity. So many action films fail to realize that you only need the barest minimum of a plot in order to set the action in motion. “John Wick 1” was simply the story of a hit man who comes out of retirement to go on a killing spree to avenge the death of the puppy that his late wife left him. That’s it. The film was off and running on its escalating violence and delivered the perfect adrenaline fix for an action junkie like myself.
“John Wick” chapters 2 and 3 have complicated that initial premise with a bigger story of an organization called The High Table that oversees a network of assassins with a specific set of rules and ethics. So I do miss the minimalism of that first film but Stahelski has kept my admiration by raising the bar with each film in terms of the action he delivers onscreen.
Some may be offended by the excess violence of the “Wick” films, and I get that. We live in a world where we witness real and horrific violence on an almost daily basis. Some look to place blame for some of this violence on movies but in the case of the "Wick" films they feel distinctly removed from the real world and are more like a stuntman’s tribute to the best of his craft can offer. I feel like seeing one of the Wick films is more likely to inspire someone to want to become a stuntman or take up martial arts than to want to become a lethal assassin. These films are really at heart about the art and craft of screen stunts and action.
Stahelski’s films are as much descendants of Sam Peckinpah, John Woo and Asian action cinema as they are of silent clowns Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. In "Chapter 2" the film starts with the image of a silent film car chase projected on the side of a building just as Wick’s car rolls into frame and in "Chapter 3" the huge image of Buster Keaton is also projected on a building before the action begins. Both of these things are Stahelski’s reminder that stunts really began with silent comedians like Keaton and Lloyd who risked life and limb to deliver spectacular stunts all for the sake of a good laugh. Stahelski honors those geniuses as well as the likes of Hong Kong action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping with whom he worked on “The Matrix.” From Yuen and Hong Kong cinema he learned two key things: action scenes begin with the script and anything in a scene can be brought to life as a prop or weapon... anything.
Stahelski and fellow stuntman David Leitch (who was an uncredited co-director on “John Wick” and who directed “Atomic Blond” on his own) had formed 87eleven, what they called an “action design company.” They were inspired in part by the way Hong Kong stunt teams worked and made stunt preparations that treated the action with the same degree of importance as any dialogue scene. That means writers, cinematographers, editors and cast are all involved from square one in terms of planning, rehearsing and executing scenes involving action. And that is why Stahelski’s “Wick” films have action like no other American film and leave all other American films and even some Asian ones in the dust.
Stahelski has a complete understanding of the dynamics of screen action plus an appreciation of film masters like Orson Welles and film theory such as mise-en-scene. So his films incorporate not just a jaw-dropping sense of innovation in terms of the action but also work to create a visual style that complements the action and is aesthetically pleasing. This also means working closely with his star Reeves in not just creating the character of Wick but in creating action that the star can credibly execute.
Keanu Reeves as action star not stuntman
Stahelski and Reeves are both clear in pointing out that while Reeves trains with impressive ferocity to prepare for these films what he does onscreen is action and stunt doubles are the ones doing the stunts. The two draw a clear line between stunts and action in order to make sure that those hardworking stunt people get the credit they are due. That being said, Reeves does a lot of amazing action from martial arts to tactical gun work to riding horses and motorcycles. This guy is intense despite his laid back, nice guy persona.
“John Wick Chapter 3” delivers some action set pieces that are simply intoxicatingly. The speed of the action leaves you breathless and I emphasize it is the speed of the action itself not the cutting or any frenetic camerawork. Like those silent clowns and Asian action films, Stahelski often uses long wide takes to allow us to appreciate the action and the fact that it is often Reeves executing the moves. Fast cuts are what films do to hide bad action or to show that they have no understanding of how to depict it onscreen. In "Chapter 3" the action involves a lot more group attacks on Wick, which includes much more rapid-fire interaction and a lot more pain.
I have to admit I was not thrilled to see the addition of Halle Berry who has two atrocious action films to her name in “Cat Woman” and “Die Another Day.” She apparently told Stahelski that she wanted to be in “John Wick 3” and he couldn’t turn her down according to the press materials. She doesn’t hurt the film but she certainly doesn’t add to it. But my acceptance of her as a retired hit woman is aided immensely by the fact her character comes with two of the most stunning action dogs to ever hit the screen. Those dogs are fierce.
Stahelski does such a fine job casting Mark Dacascos as Zero, one of the assassins hunting Wick, and looking to an actor that may have been a bit forgotten but with stellar action credits (he was TV’s “The Crow” and starred in the French film “The Brotherhood of the Wolf”). Dacascos is great and seems to take absolute delight in the role and in being able to partake in great combat scenes. So it would have been cool if instead of casting Hollywood star Berry the director had turned to someone like Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock or Zoe Bell, an actress with genuine action skills. It just would have been more fun. But Berry proves acceptable in the role and apparently trained hard for it.
Ian McShane and Lance Reddick return as part of The Continental, Laurence Fishburne is back as the King of the Bowery, and Anjelica Huston is an entertaining new character from Wick's past. Plus the film pays tribute to “The Raid” by giving roles to a pair of its actors, Yayan Ruhian (the great Mad Dog) and Cepep Arif Rahman. The two of them have an exhausting, extended battle with Wick that will leave you gasping. And I don’t know the names of those dogs but they were awesome! And Wick’s new puppy, who is kept safely away from danger (thank you!), is achingly adorable. Did I already confess to being a dog person?
Stahelski, like the Wachowskis, knows how to use Reeves effectively — don’t let him talk much or try to show a range of emotions, just dress him well and let him move. In that capacity he can be great. And by the looks of this films ending, there might be a way to resurrect him for at least one more film.
“John Wick 3” is a pure adrenaline rush from start to finish. My only complaint has to do with some narrative flaws. I’m willing to give any film a leap of faith and by that I mean a film can create any universe it wants and so long as it abides by its own logic, I’m willing to go along. So I am fine with people falling off of buildings and surviving or walking through a hail of bullets without a scratch. But there is a point in the story where Wick does something so out of character and so not in keeping with the memory of his beloved wife that it almost derailed the whole film for me. Fortunately the film corrected itself but I wish it had conceived of a smarter way to keep the plot going than to have Wick abandon his own core values.
“John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” (the subtitle translates as “prepare for war”) is pure action cinema. Don’t see this in D-Box or 4DX or any of those theater enhanced “ride” venues because that will only be a distraction from what’s on screen. Stahelski and company make you will feel the impact of every blow and experience the exhaustion Wick feels at the relentless onslaught of attackers. You don’t need any gimmicks to make this film more visceral or fun.
“John Wick 3” is not a great film in terms of the ideas it explores but it is a work that features absolute perfection in the execution of its action scenes and the way it pushes the envelope in terms of what stunt performers can do. Think of it like a musical where the numbers are flawlessly rendered but the scenes in between could use a little more polish or depth. There is something about action well done on screen that is so intoxicating that there is no other drug quite like it. Film is meant to depict motion. And just as Buster Keaton’s silent film antics dazzled audiences almost a century ago, Stahelski’s action films are making audiences look up and gasp at what his star and stunt team can pull off on screen in the new millennium. If you love the motion of motion pictures, then this film is for you.
The third chapter in the John Wick saga arrives this week and ramps up the action to new heights.
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