Gun-Fu, Assassins, & Kevlar-Clad Canines: John Wick is the Gift that Keeps on Giving

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Gun-Fu, Assassins, & Kevlar-Clad Canines: John Wick is the Gift that Keeps on Giving

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

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hen 2014’s John Wick first released, not many people would have imagined that five years later, it would be part of a franchise that is now three films deep with the release of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. But as it turns out, Keanu Reeves’ taciturn and devastatingly efficient assassin character has serious mileage, managing to stay fresh even in the limited confines of what is essentially a shoot ’em up film, albeit a superlative one. Parabellum, which in Latin means “prepare for war”, does not have the luxury of low expectations like the first film; in fact, John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) went on to  become that rare cinematic creature – a sequel that supersedes the original. And with the bar set higher than before, John Wick manages to clear it yet again, and in a dapper Italian suit to boot.

The plot, much like both prequels, is endearingly simple – Wick is “excommunicado” from his elite cabal of assassins and criminals, with a USD 14 million bounty on his head, and he has to find a way to stay alive. But more importantly, because this is a John Wick film, he has to make sure that his precious dog is stashed somewhere safe before he starts wreaking his usual carnage. With the pooch in trusted hands, Wick embarks on a bloody quest to escape New York City and find those who can revoke his excommunicado status. That’s it. No intricate politicking like on Game of Thrones, no time-travelling like Avengers: Endgame, and no galaxy-saving stakes like Star Wars; the John Wick franchise is a simple story about a loving pet owner who happens to be very good at killing people.

And with a premise that simple, you don’t need a lot of dialogue to flesh out the plot. Most of the movie’s runtime is spent capturing every bone-crunching, blood-spattering, teeth-shattering detail of its many fight scenes, as it should be for a John Wick film (barring a few unfortunate CBFC-mandated cuts). In fact, the action choreography is reminiscent of a director who shares Wick’s initials, John Woo. In particular, the close-quarter firearm combat in Parabellum seems to draw deeply from the well of gun-fu – a poetic style where handgun duels resemble martial arts – that appeared in Woo’s early films. Apart from the gun-fu, Reeves wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty while filming the fight scenes; having trained in judo and Brazilian jiu-jitsu, he’s more than capable of doing his own stunts. And in an interesting bit of trivia, the film’s director, Chad Stahelski, used to be Reeves’ stunt double on The Matrix trilogy.

The title character of John Wick feels like a role that was written especially for Keanu Reeves.

And from John Woo, we move to another legend of Hong Kong cinema – Jackie Chan. The hand-to-hand fights in Parabellum take place in a multitude of locations – the New York Public Library, a castle turret in Morocco, a stable full of racehorses, a futuristic, science-fiction-inspired boardroom, and my personal favourite, a museum with glass cases full of historical weapons. The fight choreography in Parabellum acknowledges the environment it’s taking place in, and incorporates that into the flow of combat, in much the same way Jackie Chan expertly uses every prop and surface available to make his fight scenes more engaging. Of course, Chan usually plays this to comedic effect, while for Reeves’ John Wick, it’s deadly serious business.

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The John Wick franchise is a simple story about a loving pet owner who happens to be very good at killing people.

Thunder Road Pictures

The title character of John Wick feels like a role that was written especially for Keanu Reeves. For three films now, he’s managed to convey both kindness and consideration, as well as the threat of impending violence, largely through body language, given how reserved Wick is. But apart from Reeves’ Wick, the movie features several returnees from the earlier films, all thoroughly likeable actors like Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, and in a Matrix reunion, Lawrence Fishburne. Parabellum also sees Asia Kate-Dillon, Anjelica Huston, and Halle Berry (plus a pair of badass bulletproof vest-wearing German Shepherds) join the cast, getting in on the bulletstorm that is this franchise.

In Parabellum, the universe that John Wick inhabits is fleshed out further. We learn more about the functioning of the clandestine order of assassins that Wick used to work for, as well as a little bit about who he was before he became the consummate killer. These moments of exposition are mainly used to provide audiences with a breather before the lid comes off again and all hell breaks loose. Parabellum’s fight scenes are infected with a beautiful madness, by which I mean there is a showdown where Sofia’s (Berry) attack dogs take down a crew of armed thugs, and you’re so enraptured by the near-balletic grace of the carnage that your suspension of disbelief is hardly disturbed. Even if you’re watching this movie at a midnight screening, you won’t need coffee to stay up – the sound of gunshots every ten minutes will do that for you anyway.

Just like Chapter 2 ended with Wick being declared “excommunicado”, Parabellum also ends on a blatant cliffhanger, promising a fourth, even more violent instalment to come. That’s when the “prepare for war” part of the title makes sense, and you realise that the film you just watched is merely the opening skirmish in Wick’s crusade. This franchise is so confident in its global appeal that it’s already calling its shot, and for me, it works. While the people who cross John Wick (and his dog!) will be undoubtedly terrified when The Boogeyman comes around to collect, the fans at the movies couldn’t be more delighted.

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