With the third chapter in theaters, topping the box office after 3 straight weekends of Endgame domination, and racking in twice as much money over the second’s lifetime, it’s hard to imagine the modern action landscape without John Wick. Trends pointing to colossal odds, threatening reality and trying to constantly one up everyone else, Wick has stood out from the pack by taking a step back and closer by showing the most intense scenes can be just a man against a handful of combatants. Over the three entries, we’ve seen the property pull itself out of B movie camp and into the top echelon of the genre, not without some missteps along the way, but offering a neo-noir filled only with the purest vision for action.
The inspiration doesn’t seem to come from a void of the modern landscape, if anything its from the void of the US landscape. The first installment takes a lot from The Raid Redemption, a Korean film where a SWAT team is tasked with bringing down a gang leader holding up in an apartment building. As the team slowly gets picked off fights stop being all out brawls, and shift into the frantic but instantly calculated and intimate duels. Over the film, you see exactly how vulnerable these characters are especially being outnumbered in every scuff usually always resulting in injury or death. Wick shows that level of precision in its first set piece, John’s house. A deep level of understanding in the setting but shaking off the rust that accumulated over the years, throwing himself into goons in clear view of others, narrowly dodging shots through a wall, and grappling the last with a knife in hand. While most of the first installment does have John taking many hits, the loss of his wife and dog, albeit a bit of a joke over the years, having a character consistently looking to those lives for anymore comfort but failing to keep his composure. That vulnerability is almost reminiscent of 80s action, but with a heavier emphasis on that cloud above his head.
The comparisons don’t stop there as they extended into every technical aspect. Both feature a cast capable of the demanding choreography and the camera work does their best not to obfuscate that, but Wick learns for its predecessor’s mistakes. There are more than a few moments in The Raid where the camera whips too fast or maneuvers in such a way that results in some lose of impact. Wick remedies that with wider and smoother camera work, it understands making a shot look cool easily detracts from the talent displayed.
Where Wick diverts is it’s world. The idea of an underground business and society build around hitmen feels straight out of a pre-existing comic series. The Continental, hitmen rules, services, currency, and all that is intimidating enough to make cops turn their head.
John Wick had set a bar that would be hard to overcome. In hindsight, it served as a proof of concept to push across the table, so when Chapter 2 hits the scene, it asks ‘What if there was just more?’
Chapter 2 takes its brawls to a new level. What we’ve been seeing in the genre for the past few years have been these flash in the pan scuffs that may have one highlight that people always point to as if it’s the only important part. That changes in the first 5 minutes as a scene as simple as stealing a car back turns into film defining bombastic set piece for most… But this isn’t most films. All but one of the set pieces (the montage of killers, even though it has the pencil) are treated equally here and with that, all can be argued are the best. Between the getaway after the assassination, both Casian fights, and the finale are much longer than their predecessors, flashy, and varied without losing any of the intricacies. It’s hard to imagine such a feat until you sit down for the 2 hour runtime. Chapter 2 shares all these qualities with The Raid 2 in that regard. Both steps forward for the series, and leaps for the genre. At the same time, there is a lack of focus and moments grounding the films comparatively. What made the first seem like a stepping stone, it in hindsight turns into its greatest strength as the conclusiveness is something that series will never get back. The interesting additions to the lore only dilute and muddy the waters for the series going forward.
Going into Parabellum, the odds have never been higher and it’s hard to see how they can ever top it. One man against the world. The danger is more palpable as seen in the first minutes John is already exhausted and gets stabbed in the first confrontation, vulnerability not seen since the first. This fight also highlights exactly how it stands out in the series. Experimenting with its composition and blocking as John and adversary go back and forth past library shelving framing the shot, and the gruesomeness that can only come out during absolutely decisive attacks from a man knowing he needs to work with any tool he can get his hands on, traditional or not. Books to break someone’s neck, slapping a horses ass kicking dudes in the face, commanding dogs to bite the dicks of every goon on screen. Yeah, cabinets full of knives are pretty standard, but yeeting them as if they’re small pebbles isn’t. How about using multiple clips as crowd control for full body armored hitmen? Or taking actors from the series you’ve been trying to replicate and dedicating 10 minutes to a tour de force exhausting brawl. The lengths that the film goes to in order to one up itself is mind boggling, although that competition backfires in some ways like every franchise now.
Previously establishing a super power meant to be the the people in charge, like the high table, and saying there’s another level on top, like the elder, doesn’t just undermine the previous film, but creates a precedent where any level isn’t respected because writers can just say there’s another. There’s also a clear trend that the more the franchise focuses on its action, the more the plot suffers. John Wick has never meant for its story to be the driving force and it’s been skirting the line for two films, but Parabellum defines exactly where that line lies. Despite continuing to make its mark on the industry larger by the installment, this film isn’t going to the most important in the storyline after the announced Chapter 4, possibly 5, and The Continental spinoff.
Neither of its issues take away from the meat of the film, true devotion to the craft. At this point, the series can now be compared to Mission Impossible rise, constantly improving its set pieces and upping the ante, but still figuring out exactly how to tell its stories. All the experimentation hasn’t taken away from each installment, but adding to the wide net its casts. Although, both exist on the opposite ends of the action spectrum but its only interest is showing the passion, detail, and physicality to its art only add to the phenomenon that each series are, or still becoming.
Regardless, I watched Parabellum twice in a weekend and, before that second viewing rewatching the series, all within 9 hours. There are more negative things to say against Parabellum but its craft propelled it and will stay at my favorite of the series for now the time being.