Image owned by Lionsgate and from Newsweek (Keanu rides again.)
Keanu Reeves has been our perennial favorite for the Gen Xr’s tubular action hero ever since Katheryn Bigelow put him alongside Swayze in Point Break: Fast and Furious before it was cool.
He’s been excellent in Speed, he’s been righteous in The Matrix, but he hasn’t had the most consistent luck as a star. Before Chad Stahelski and David Leitch put him into the intense role of Mr. Wick, his best attempt at a comeback floundered with 2013’s 47 Ronin. Less than a year later, an ex-hitman out to avenge his cute doggie brought him back.
Aside from how oddly young the now 54 year old actor remains, even under the duress of the role, the most amazing part about the third and to my surprise, not final John Wick film is how….real the actors in combat feel,now more than ever.
Tom Cruise has been earning much love over the past decade for actually putting himself at risk in the last three Mission Impossible films. While nothing in John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum seems as risky to those films stunts, Reeves, alongside costar Halle Berry really seem to be put in mortal danger. The illusion is still convincing at the third entry.
Obviously, it’s likely that well hidden stunt doubles are in place to keep Keanu safe, but it does seem like when John Wick gets hurt bad, Keanu makes it look like he actually got hurt.
That’s often one of the old tricks that make action films work best: create a convincing illusion of danger to the performers to make the action feel real and with meaning. I already mentioned Mission Impossible, there’s also the Mad Max series, particularly the second and fourth, John Woo’s heroic bloodshed classics from Hong Kong like The Killer and Hard Boiled and Jackie Chan before he both got too old and made Hollywood films.
Now, in all fairness, some of those films mentioned earlier did involve risk of injury and death. Many of Chan’s famed stunts have indeed nearly killed him. We won’t know until later if anything in the Wick film saga brought Reeves or anyone else close to the brink, but all I can say is they make you really believe when a guy gets killed. Even if the extras Reeves took out are quite fine in reality.
Before I get too ahead of myself, some refreshers on the life and times of the man they call “Baba Yaga”.
The first film sets up John Wick as a man, like many angsty action heroes, with a tragic backstory. His loving wife, a connection to a far cleaner life, dies of an,of course, unexplained illness. He gets a puppy as a posthumous gift from his wife and finds happiness again outside of his violent life as the hitman.
Then, Alfie Allen as a Russian mob boss’ son, pisses him off by breaking into his house and killing the poor pooch. Wick then spends the rest of the movie getting revenge for his newfound hope getting needlessly crushed.
The second film has John Wick trying once again to return to a peaceful life following his revenge and getting a new pooch in the process. Re-entering the shady world run by the mysterious High Table has consequences so he is forced to honor a blood debt to make up for returning into that world.
That doesn’t end well with John, in a fit of rage, shooting the guy who put him in trouble that chapter, in a place where murder and violence is strictly off limits: the Continental Hotel for people like him. He ends the film on the run for his rule breaking and begins this one in exactly the same way. How will our anti-hero get out of this predicament, dear viewers?!
All the John Wick films can be viewed in two different ways. You can watch it solely for the expert use of action, combining a close and physical ballet of punching, kicking, slamming, shooting and environmental opportunity alone. An actual scene of ballet is shown perhaps to echo that aspect to the series’ fighting style.
You can also view it as an artistic meditation on consequence, loss, forgiveness, redemption, rage, and what honor means for a society as ethically low as a hitman secret society that Wick is stuck in. There is food for thought in both departments of your brain.
The primal yet creative side of your brain, assuming it can stomach the violence, wonders how a certain scenario is going to play out. How is John Wick, on the run, with a four million plus dollar bounty on his head while wounded, going to take out wave after wave of vicious assassins?
That side looks at Wick’s gears in his head whirring, using what he knows of the environment he’s in to use against his opponents. It becomes a fun guessing game deciding how the sequence will play out and wondering if your guess on how it ends was as brutal yet as cool as you thought it would be. Most of the time, Chapter Three is happy to please you with the result, if not also shock you.
A lot of the best action films do play on the protagonist’s critical thinking skills as the tool to entertain. It is literally mindful violence when I put it that way. John Wick is not an exceptional figure in that regard. Indiana Jones, James Bond, Ethan Hunt, John McClane, Mcguyver, and many others have been cheered on through the ages for their brains winning the day.
What makes John Wick’s take work is that you have known since the first film that he is the best of all the assassins. We learn why he is the best through his undeniable skill and speed and through how he processes every fight, even when he is not in the best shape, like a master craftsman.
The use of fight framing, lighting, choreography and further world building of John Wick’s world is just as strong now as it’s ever been. I’d even say, for my own tastes, that this is action wise the strongest film yet.
Many fights that John gets into have a great use of black comedy to them, even stronger than the first two films’ usage. Avoiding context, it varies in Wick and foes deciding what weapon to use, surprise at both guns being empty, comical dismay that a wave of foes have for once come prepared for an enemy who mostly uses pistols and a duo of dogs getting all too happy to chomp on some family jewels.
It’s brutal, but I’d be lying if I didn’t find it darkly humorous as it was meant to come across that way.
A lot of Chapter Three will feel familiar to those who have seen the first two. A lot the film will also come across as fresh, well realized. It feels appropriately like an escalation of what came before as a proper sequel sets out to do. New threats, new weapons, new tools, new friends and enemies and enough introspection on our troubled protagonist’s part to make even more Wick action feel welcome rather than repetitive.