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The Life-Affirming Gratuitous Violence of ‘John Wick: Chapter 3’

Plus some other random thoughts about Keanu Reeves’ latest action-thriller

“Every action has consequences” solemnly reads the poster for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the latest installment in a series that was set in motion when mournful hitman John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) came out of retirement to get vengeance on the men who killed his dog, a gift left to him by his beloved dead wife. With that as its starting point, this franchise has often exuded an air of deep sorrow as John has found himself drawn back into his old life, discovering that returning to his former profession is a lot easier than getting back out.

That’s how these movies present themselves, anyway. But I don’t think that’s how they’re received by an adoring audience. I say this because after watching Parabellum at a press screening, I noticed that people weren’t hanging on John’s solemn proclamations about wanting a fresh start or the toll that his murderous ways take on his soul. Nope, the crowd was mostly laughing uproariously at the ultra-violent fight scenes. So was I. Does this make me a sociopath? Perhaps. But what the John Wick films have done is create an action-movie environment where the violence is so brilliantly outlandish — so stunningly conceived and cleverly orchestrated — that it produces a rare sensation in blockbusters. People don’t laugh because it’s hilarious to watch bad guys die, although I suspect for some viewers that’s part of it. For me, the laughter is similar to the kind that pours out of me during a really great musical sequence. I laugh because I can’t believe what I’m seeing — and I’m just so happy to be alive to witness it. The violence in John Wick: Chapter 3 is so exuberant that, oddly, it’s life-affirming.

Watch enough Hollywood movies and there’s a good chance you’ll be inundated with violence. Even in PG-13 films like Avengers: Endgame, characters are beating the hell out of each other most of the time. But because of the weirdness of the MPAA ratings board, which doesn’t give an action movie an R unless there’s bloody violence, we now live in an age where hundreds of digital characters can die tastefully and it’s still A-OK for the whole family. It’s not a surprise what the side effect to such an attitude can be: We become inured to bloodless rock-‘em-sock-‘em action, accepting all those explosions and punches and citywide devastation as good ol’ fashioned entertainment.

I’m not here to condemn Hollywood as purveyors of filth or suggest that studios are to blame for American gun violence. (The science on that is too nuanced and open-ended for such blanket statements.) But I do think that a film like John Wick: Chapter 3 is at least refreshingly honest about the actual repercussions of violence. I don’t mean in an Unforgiven, moral-rot sort of way: I’m talking about the acknowledgment that violence is brutal, intimate, traumatic, and when done well in a movie, incredibly euphoric. Like the previous installments, John Wick: Chapter 3 isn’t turning us into soulless monsters. But it is letting us safely relish in the bloodlust that PG-13 films try to sanitize.

There have been a few precedents for what the John Wick films have managed to pull off. One of the happiest experiences I’ve ever had at Sundance was sitting in a full house to see the world premiere of The Raid 2. What that movie and John Wick: Chapter 3 have in common — besides a few of the same actors — is an emphasis on practical stunts. Think about most action films, which inevitably feature some incredible feat that the human body simply cannot achieve. Forget flying or turning into the Hulk: Modern movies rely so much on CG, wirework and other tricks that we start to doubt everything on screen. Not so with John Wick: Chapter 3. We’re enthralled in part because we recognize how difficult it was to accomplish.

When John Wick opened in the fall of 2014, director Chad Stahelski, a former stunt coordinator, put a premium on realistic stunts. He and the film’s uncredited co-director David Leitch founded 87Eleven, a film company that “help[s] create innovative and safe, yet one-of-a-kind stunts that are worthy of today’s biggest action films.” Stahelski had known Reeves previously on The Matrix, where he served as the actor’s stunt double, and it was on that series where Stahelski and Leitch saw the future of action movies. “[W]e studied how a Chinese fight-choreography team trains actors before production starts so that they can participate in action sequences in a more dynamic way,” Leitch once recalled. “We wanted to bring that to Western cinema.”

And so John Wick’s hand-to-hand fight scenes underlined the brute force and physical exertion required for an actual fight. Yet at the same time, Stahelski and Leitch wanted the action to have a balletic quality. Just because John Wick was laying waste to tons of foes didn’t mean it couldn’t also be beautiful.

Leitch has gone on to make Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, extreme action movies in their own right, while Stahelski has helmed all three John Wick films, which also focused on realism in terms of how they deal with guns. In the first John Wick, it was shocking to watch John methodically shoot one baddie after another at point-blank range. I don’t think a film has ever featured so many headshots as that one. Each of them was violent, but it was also indicative of this assassin’s character: He’s a professional, and he doesn’t mess around. If you kill for a living, you want to do it efficiently, and a bullet to the head gets the job done fast. The bluntness of John’s strategy was so surprising that I remember laughing several times when he killed people. (“Of course, that’s how a hitman would do it,” I thought.) It wasn’t just the starkness of the violence — John Wick seemed, after so many mediocre action movies, to be a more believable look at the world of assassins… while also being completely over-the-top and ridiculous, of course.

The risk with action-movie sequels is the inevitable diminishing returns as the filmmakers constantly try to top their last round of outrageous fight sequences. I was starting to feel fatigued after John Wick: Chapter 2, but the new film doesn’t disappoint. John Wick kills people in so many clever ways in this movie. He has random horses kick evil henchmen in the head. A pair of ferocious dogs boasts an extraordinary ability to zero in on bad guys’ crotches and bite down hard. As for another terrific kill, I don’t want to ruin it, but I’ll let this tweet offer a big hint:

There might seem to be something contradictory here: How can I praise John Wick: Chapter 3 for “realistic” fight scenes when craziness like this is occurring? What’s exceptional about Stahelski is his ability to make the film’s ludicrous stunts still seem grounded in some sort of believability. In part, that’s because he focuses on long takes, which allow action to build and develop on screen. Simply because he doesn’t cut around a ton, we feel like we’re not being tricked — we’re actually watching something “real” unfolding. Of course there are tricks being done all over the place, but we’re fooled into thinking otherwise.

That illusion is part of the reason why I laughed so much at John Wick: Chapter 3. We don’t mind being tricked if we feel the illusionist is talented enough — if anything, we’re delighting in being part of the trick. All action directors want to wow us, but few films have the unbridled joy that this movie does. John Wick: Chapter 3 has a lot of stuff that’s dumb. Its story is silly, and everyone takes themselves way too seriously. But Keanu Reeves kills people with such aplomb. He’s so good at it, and he seems to deeply enjoy it. What makes musicals so euphoric is that they seem to tap into something profoundly alive about us — how our hearts and souls are hardwired to be filled with song and dance. John Wick: Chapter 3 does the same thing for murder.

Here are three other takeaways from John Wick: Chapter 3

#1. What’s a parabellum?

We’ve become used to franchise sequels having longer and longer titles. It’s not enough to call it Jurassic World 2 — it now needs to be Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. I love Mission: Impossible – Fallout, but that title is a punctuation nightmare. Well, the John Wick films have upped the ante on this ridiculousness by calling their third installment John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Pick a number or a subtitle, people.

Plus, there’s the little matter of what the hell a “parabellum” is. Turns out, there are two meanings, both of which are reasonably applicable for a movie about a badass lethal assassin.

The more recent originates in the very early 20th century. It’s a kind of firearm cartridge credited to Georg Luger, the man behind the namesake pistol. Parabellum cartridges remain popular — so popular, in fact, that there’s a Japanese rock band named 9mm Parabellum Bullet. Take a listen:

But the cartridge’s name came from a Latin expression, si vis pacem, para bellum, which means “If you want peace, prepare for war.” And lest there be any doubt that this is what the producers of the new film had in mind, Ian McShane’s hotel-manager character makes it obvious by invoking the Latin phrase right before the movie’s final bravura action set piece. Spoiler Alert: I don’t think there’s going to be any peace after John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

#2. The world demands more Jason Mantzoukas.

A colleague saw John Wick: Chapter 3 pretty early, and when friends found out, they only had one question: How much Jason Mantzoukas is there in it? Unfortunately, not a lot. People who recognize Mantzoukas’ name love him. If his ferocious fan club had any juice in Hollywood, the guy would be a megastar.

If you aren’t familiar with Mantzoukas, he’s been popping up in films and TV shows for more than a decade. He’s probably best known from The League, where he played Rafi, who was, despite some stiff competition, the most horrible character in a show filled with bad human beings.

Mantzoukas has made a career out of playing awful people. On Brooklyn Nine-Nine, he’s Adrian Pimento, a demented undercover cop. On Parks and Recreation, he’s a jerk entrepreneur who got rich designing Axe-like fragrances. (Sample names: Allergic for Men, Bloodspurt, Butterface, Sideboob.) If he’s on the program you’re watching, the chances are good he’ll be the funniest person on the screen, playing the least-likable character in the room.

“Somehow, I’ve fallen into a real niche as an actor,” he joked on Late Night last year, adding, “People look at me and they don’t see ‘romantic lead.’ They don’t say, ‘There’s a hunky guy.’ They say, like, ‘Ooh, I bet that guy is like a junkie who, like, threatens people but also has a sweet side.’” Between his wild eyes and potent beard — and, let’s be honest, a certain amount of ingrained xenophobia in the audience that he slyly subverts (he has dark features but is of Greek descent) — Mantzoukas comes across as a hilarious madman.

In John Wick: Chapter 3, he plays the Tick Tock Man, who keeps track of time. I’m not making that up: The film’s press notes actually describe the Tick Tock Man as someone “who keeps track of time.” Sadly, Mantzoukas is in the movie so little that it made me wonder if his part got trimmed down — after all, you don’t hire him unless you want him to steal a scene or two. Ironically, though, in that same Late Night interview, he and Seth Meyers laughed about the fact that Mantzoukas is always being typecast as a homeless person. Well, the Tick Tock Man is, in fact, homeless.

While we wait for Mantzoukas to get a meatier film role — although I hear he’s good in The Long Dumb Road — let’s enjoy him not being homeless or a junkie. Here’s him talking about music, TV shows and movies that he really digs. He’s got great taste, and he seems like he’d be fun to hang with — he probably wouldn’t even threaten your life once.

#3. Let’s talk about that Anjelica Huston interview.

“Oh man, have you read that Anjelica Huston interview?”

I had a couple people ask me that over the last few weeks. They were, of course, talking about her lengthy sit-down Q&A with Vulture’s Andrew Goldman, in which she dished on everything from Ryan O’Neal to Jack Nicholson to the difference between good and bad cocaine. When I have friends asking me about a particular interview, I know what that means: Hey, did you hear about the shit so-and-so said about so-and-so? We live in a time of 24/7 celebrity coverage, but much of it is homogenized and prepackaged. It’s all carefully manicured so that the celebrity comes off well and says nothing controversial. So when I start hearing from folks about a particular interview, I assume that the opposite has happened: Somebody decided to just be honest, and maybe a little gossipy.

That’s certainly the case with the Huston interview. I’ve never talked to the Oscar-winning actress, but from the Vulture piece, she comes across as an eminently smart, reflective, prideful, melancholy soul. In other words, she sounds like a human being, and it’s strange how refreshing that is to come across in a celebrity interview.

I do lots of interviews myself and take them very seriously — it means a lot to me to have a meaningful conversation that respects my subject’s intelligence and time — and I often read bad ones that make me want to weep with frustration. Goldman does a great job of pressing her, but a lot of the credit simply goes to Huston for being candid and showing her vulnerabilities. Reading this piece, you feel like you’ve witnessed a genuine person who’s lived a life. She’s experienced lots of hard things alongside some amazing things. And she’s willing to talk about it all.

What’s great about an interview like this is its rareness. Not only do few actors risk being so open, it’s the sort of thing that an actor can’t necessarily replicate. I doubt Huston could sit down and do three or four more like this — after a while, the law of diminishing returns kicks in. (Once you describe your back being “like liquid amber” when you were young, that’s the sort of mic-drop moment that’s impossible to duplicate.)

Unsurprisingly, her candor got her in trouble: In recent days, she’s had to apologize for making fun of Poms, which possibly was insisted on by the folks at Lionsgate who are putting out John Wick: Chapter 3 and don’t want any bad press to mar the film’s release. (This is probably a good time to mention: Huston did the Vulture interview as a way to promote her appearance in the movie.)

And that’s another reason why her interview is such an anomaly: Publicists make it their job to ensure that candor doesn’t happen. Ironically, because Huston was so honest with Vulture, it makes it that much more unlikely we’ll get another interview, from anyone, with the same degree of thoughtfulness and sincerity. Moviegoers love knowing who the real people are behind the shiny surfaces we see up there on the screen. But as far as Hollywood is concerned, that’s bad for business.