Friday 24 May 2019

Extensions: "John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum"

Founded in 2014, the John Wick series was the first major action franchise to be built in the image of The Raid, that next-level Indonesian beat-'em-up/health-and-safety nightmare of 2011. Certain elements were imported wholesale: a hero besieged from every angle; the preference for analogue stuntwork in non-CG environments, allowing us to fully register the thwack whenever bodies hit the floor; and - distinguishing the Wicks from so many fast-cut franchises - the tethering of all this action to a sure sense of space, surest of all perhaps around The Continental, that olde-worlde New York hotel for assassins presided over by a suavely cravatted, cognac-sipping Ian McShane. That location alone pointed to the element of the baroque stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski wrestled into shot; it was one of several art deco flourishes against which the filmmaker could offset his essentially meat-and-potatoes genre thrills. The Raid was a long tall bag of concrete, brutalist entertainment in every sense (although its 2014 sequel got the interior decorators in). The Wicks have had the benefit of the considered design a studio budget can get you, which explains why its protagonist finished John Wick: Chapter 2 squaring off in a gallery; it's also allowed Stahelski to reinforce his vision of an underworld extending out from the margins of the real world, with offices of touch-typing secretaries in place to handle the contracts involved in contract killings, and gold coins being passed out to secure access to those backrooms deemed off-limits to mere mortals. Stahelski wasn't interested in dancing about architecture; kicking-ass around, sometimes through it would be his calling card.

We see a good deal more of that world in John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, which picks up almost exactly where its predecessor left off, with the clock ticking down to the point where open season can be declared on Wick for crossing the wrong people in Chapters One and Two. In the first twenty minutes alone, our man will face off against potential killers in the New York Public Library, a handily overstocked armoury, and the city's sole remaining working stables (where Keanu gets the horses to do some of the highkicks for him), allowing us a rapid sense that the whole world has turned against John Wick; as if the threat of being offed wasn't enough, he also has to navigate rush hour traffic, and to do so in torrential rain. It makes narrative sense, then, for Stahelski to set Wick loose in turn against the whole world - to liberate him from the mean streets and relocate him to balmier climes, where the sopping wet platinum-black suit of a trained killer who's trying to reform might dry out. Chapter 3 is where this franchise, having banked enough money to feel secure in its movements, begins to stretch its arms and legs and spread out, for better and worse. The heavier lifting can at least be shared more equally this time around. Reeves, then at the nothing-to-lose stage of his career, was the only star willing to sign on for the shaky prospect of the first movie, but now we also have an imperious Anjelica Huston as a Russian mob boss who dabbles in ballet instruction (giving Stahelski a dash of high culture to cut in with all his fists to the face) and Halle Berry as a sort of sexed-up Barbara Woodhouse the exiled Wick joins in Casablanca, who - in keeping with the attack dogs she unleashes on foes' crotches - snarls her every other line of dialogue.

Chapter 3 has spectacle, then, enough to do you for an idle Friday or Saturday night. What you might long for, amid the longueurs of a flagrantly overextended two-hour sit, is a script that didn't simply feel like a callsheet for Stahelski's stunt performers, or which offered one wisecrack that acknowledged how absurd it is that the slaying of John Wick's dog should have led us to this multiplex version of World War III. Parabellum is not without its lighter moments, and it manages one good joke that's about space, drafting in DTV superstar Mark Dacascos as a John Wick superfan whose obsession insists he be the one to get close enough to take our hero out. More generally, the punchlines start to fall on the blunt side, as if Stahelski had run out of ways to close a scene out, save having Keanu hurl an axe into a goon's face. The bulk of the energy has gone on more stunts, and that worldbuilding that is beloved of fans, but which has increasingly come to resemble the creative equivalent of human resources, shuttling on supporting actors to restate or reframe the rules of every dust-up: Asia Kate Dillon as an adjudicator known as The Adjudicator, Saïd Taghmaoui - of course Saïd Taghmaoui - as a Bedouin chief Wick meets on his travels, Laurence Fishburne as another of the series' throwaway Matrix references. If you're just here to watch Keanu conducting a swordfight while speeding a motorbike into an uncertain night, you'll get your gold coins' worth, yet what this series has gained in scope, it loses in containment and credible threat. Behind the Continental's characterful facade, we now learn, there sits a vast glass-and-metal annex, indistinguishable from the modern corporate workspace, and in some way emblematic of the level this sometime B-movie gamble is now operating on. The content generated there is the same - it's still Keanu beating people up - but the dimensions have changed, so you exit Parabellum with a feeling not of liberation or exhilaration, but vague emptiness, and the exhaustion that comes specifically from watching people having to cover extra ground.

John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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