In the same way it’s hard for me to say whether or not you’re actually a ninja mercenary (as your title in the end credits proclaims), it’s hard for me to say whether or not John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is actually a movie. Indeed, it’s a series of moving images set to sound and music, and it was projected on a screen in front of me for a movie-length running time of just over two hours. I ate popcorn, I drank a soda, I had my parking validated. All the common motions of watching a movie were performed.
Despite the countless hours I spent compulsively watching VHS copies of poorly-dubbed John Woo movies when I was in junior high – back when it seemed the height of masculinity was to wear a black suit and black tie and fire two handguns at the same time – I came late to the John Wick franchise. After all the hype, I eventually caught up with the first movie. It was okay. I missed the second one entirely. Still, that didn’t dull my anticipation to see part three, because everyone else seemed excited, and I’m happy to be a tourist in a foreign place, baffled by a mythology I don’t understand. And John Wick 3 certainly baffled me. Not because I’d missed some essential intricacy of the narrative, or was ignorant of the rules established two movies ago, but because of how bizarrely inconsistent the tone is.
Tone is a thing. As a shinobi, you must understand this—such subtle refinements are part of your ninja craft. Tone is what makes a horror movie horrific, but sometimes funny. It’s what makes a superhero movie bleak, or sometimes funny, or sometimes both.
The filmmakers, here, want us to believe that they’re totally self-aware that the world they’ve built is absurd. The elaborate kills, the peacocking villains, the stylized subtitles—all these clues that they want you to laugh along with them. Yet there are long stretches of John Wick 3 that are played straight, like this dark fantasy world of tattooed Russian gangsters and fancy assassin hotels and sexy receptionists with fetishes for analog technology is as portentous and austere as it appears. The film is never quite tongue-in-cheek. I don’t really know where its tongue is. Scene to scene, I could never quite situate myself.
But a John Wick movie, by its nature, isn’t an unpleasant experience. At least not for the first forty minutes or so. It’s built like a martial arts movie: a series of fight sequences of increasing complexity and violence that are strung together by the simplest primal urges: in the case of the first film, it was revenge; in this one…I’m still not quite sure. Encounters seem to happen at random. You could play the fight sequences on shuffle and the story would make just as much sense. They aren’t dependent on one another, and, in fact, get less and less creative as the movie wears on. How fun would it have been to see John Wick kill a man with a library book at the end of the film, after he’d face-shot a hundred henchmen? In this manner, the movie sets nothing up, and therefore can’t pay anything off.
Oh, and Halle Berry shows up halfway through the movie! She growls and snaps, makes vague reference to some shared dark history with John Wick, hints at a backstory involving a lost daughter, then, after a slightly-too-long fight sequence during which she spins in circles while her dogs chew on the scrotums of her unlucky assailants, she disappears completely from the film. Nothing she said or did mattered. Except to those guys with chewed-off scrotums, I guess.
The fight scenes are pretty great. Actors like Keanu Reeves don’t often get enough credit for their physical performances; his style of motion is just as distinct as the surfer-drawl sound of his voice, and there are pleasant echoes of The Matrix in the way he swings his arms and squares his shoulders. Around him, bodies fly, bounce, spin, fold up, collapse. I assume you were in there somewhere— you’ve been credited as a stunt player on everything from Avengers: Endgame to Power Rangers. But there’s more than just punching and kicking and sword-slashing in this movie. There’s shooting. A lot of it. More often than not, these shots are fired at point blank range into a person’s face. A bullet, in the world of John Wick, is the equivalent of a punch, and, like a boxer with fast hands, Wick sets up each knock-out blow with a flurry of jabs. Bang bang bang bang bang. There follows the video game logic that an enemy in the third act requires several more bullets to the braincase in order to be immobilized.
Maybe Mark Dacascos is the Rosetta Stone for understanding the world of John Wick. He’s a familiar face if (like me) you’re a fan of straight-to-video 90s action flicks, or have ever seen the American version of Iron Chef. His performance as the sword-wielding baddie sent to hunt down John Wick sits comfortably at that intersection of camp and seriousness the rest of the film can’t quite seem to find; he moves like a cat, lithe, stopping and starting at incredible speed, a human special-effect; he leers, and grins, and growls, and threatens like a good bad-guy should…but when he gets a moment alone with John Wick on neutral ground, he can’t help but turn into a fanboy, and we see what has been driving him to pursue Wick with such ferocity: childlike admiration.
As a series of video-game cut scenes, John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is terrific. As a martial arts film, it’s a decent replica—perhaps a natural evolution. Still, somehow, it doesn’t quite feel like a feature film. More like one of those YouTube compilation videos that cuts together all the best fight scenes from a specific actor’s filmography.
In your other films, Akihiro, you’re credited as a stunt performer. But here, you are shinobi, covert agent of feudal Japan. Which I suppose is meant to be kind of cool and irreverent and amusing. And it is. A little. But it also feels like you’re striving a bit too hard for it. And maybe that’s what keeps me from going all in on Wick.