How many times can you watch Keanu Reeves inflict head trauma on faceless Asian goons before it gets repetitive? The third installment of the hitherto rewarding John Wick franchise answers this question in its opening 20 minutes but repeats the formula over and over regardless, leaving its audience in a mentally numbed state by the time it reaches its uninspired climax, in which Keanu Reeves inflicts more head trauma on an army of faceless Asian goons.
The John Wick series has always taken its cues from Asian action cinema. That’s generally a good thing, as Asia is practically the only part of the filmmaking world where you can find action sequences put together in a way that translates to excitement on screen, eschewing the shaky cam and CG of Hollywood action for practical stunts performed by talented athletes filmed in a comprehensible manner. In John Wick 3, this debt is acknowledged with the titular hitman, now a marked man following the climax of the second installment, facing off against Zero (Mark Dacascos), a Japanese-coded assassin with an infantry of Asian stereotypes at his beck and call.
As we watch Wick dispense these rent-a-thugs with relative ease, we’re reminded of how many Hollywood action movies have traded on the notion that Americans can out-Asian Asians when it comes to martial arts. The unfortunate cultural dynamic of John Wick 3 becomes even more uncomfortable when Wick teams up with Halle Berry’s leather clad assassin Sofia to mow down dozens of Arabs in a sequence that plays like the fantasy of a Stormfront forum member. That said dispensable Arabs are led by a white man (played byJerome Flynn of Robson and Jerome fame!!!) who is spared such brutal treatment by Wick and Sofia makes it all the more unpalatable.
The fact that a John Wick sequel makes you think about its politics tells you a lot about how uninteresting it is on every other level. Its immediate predecessor, the stylish and witty John Wick: Chapter Two, embraced the silliness of its scenario and dialed up the campness without ever winking at the audience. Its followup annoyingly adds a meta level with a stuffy administrative figure (Asia Kate Dillon) who calls out how ridiculous the rules of the franchise’s guild of assassins are. The series reaches its low-point when Keanu repeats his most famous line from The Matrix, and in that moment I was thankful I was watching this in a cinema rather than at home, as I might have put my foot through my TV in annoyance.
John Wick 2 was one of the most gorgeous movies to come out of Hollywood this decade. It was a boutique men’s magazine come to life, a metrosexual spin on the macho action genre with an almost obsessive level of detail in its production design and cinematography. By comparison, John Wick 3 is visually bland, with returning DP Dan Laustsen eschewing the primary colored fantasia of his work on the previous installment for a nauseating teal and amber aesthetic. Aside from an early sequence involving knives and axes flying here, there and everywhere, the set-pieces are similarly uninspired, headshot after headshot after headshot, as generic as anything in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though a lot bloodier. On the rare occasion when the film does find a novel way of dispatching a villain (see the use of a horse’s hind legs), the movie is so smugly satisfied it repeats the trick - Jackie Chan is groaning somewhere.
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The best scene in John Wick 2 involved Wick being stalked through the NYC subway by an assassin played by rapper Common. What made it work so well was the novel idea of both men attempting to fight without drawing attention from the surrounding New Yorkers, thus keeping their clandestine world a secret. John Wick 3 dispenses this notion, with Wick and his opponents making no effort to be discreet in their actions. Wick kills several baddies in broad daylight in a crowded Grand Central Station, but none of the passersby seem to notice, even with corpses strewn on the floor. When Wick faces off against a giant ogre of a man in the New York Public Library, the movie fluffs the opportunity to riff on Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain by having the men attempt to fight without making any noise.
John Wick 3 trades the style, wit and sophistication of its predecessors for garish lighting, sub Takashi Miike edgelord violence and a postmodern takedown of the Walter Hill inspired world it so meticulously constructed. When John Wick 2 ended, you wanted to watch the next installment right away, but when John Wick 3 teases a fourth chapter, you’re simply left groaning.
John Wick 2 was the dog’s bollocks. John Wick 3 is simply bollocks.
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellem: 1 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by: Chad Stahelski; Starring: Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne, Mark Dacascos, Asia Kate Dillon, Lance Reddick, Anjelica Huston