“Reminiscing” would seem to be the prevailing conversational mode that (good) action films of the 2010s tend to have. The John Wick franchise owes Buster Keaton numerous blood debts, wherein director Chad Stahelski pays tribute to the filmmaker by projecting a scene from one of Keaton’s films in the opening of Chapter 2. In Parabellum, as John Wick (Keanu Reeves) courses through New York City in a downpour, you can catch a glimpse of Keaton in The General on one of the numerous screens that bombard you in Times Square. Yet to contain the scope of Parabellum’s influence on the physical comic of the silent era is entirely insufficient – this is a film that engages in a very vivid and perpetually evolving parley with American cinema of the past, outsourcing techniques that have been diluted with time and repurposing them here, within an ever-expanding criminal underworld. There aren’t many films that can suggest John Ford and D.W. Griffith in one scene and follow that up with a sequence involving a knife thrown directly to the groin, but Parabellum impossibly does.
Set moments after the conclusion of Chapter 2, Parabellum finds Wick as a refugee, seeking asylum in Casablanca as he reaches out to a Council Elder in hopes of lifting his excommunication from the under-the-table society that Stahelski evolves with writer Derek Kolstad and his cadre of co-writers. As Wick avoids certain death with an increasing bounty on his head, a side narrative involving a new character, a Council Adjudicator (a magnificent Asia Kate Dillon) develops, wherein those assisting Wick with his stateside escape are reprimanded in the most severe sense. It’s a new dynamic to this unexpected franchise, wherein the self-contained nature of the first film is further expanded, perhaps to its limits.
There was a measure of surprise in how we experience the depths of John Wick’s quote unquote universe in Chapter 2, wherein Rome’s version of the Continental, the scene involving the sommelier, the bowery, and the administrative center, all registered as bold new developments to an increasingly complex world. But I’m not certain if Parabellum’s new additions really add up to anything substantive. The detour to Casablanca, where Reeves more or less functions as Humphrey Bogart incarnate, lacks a sense of urgency and at times seems middling. Halle Berry, as a Continental Casablanca mainstay that owes John Wick a blood debt, is an especially underdeveloped plot point. It’s what occurs back in NYC, involving the Adjudicator and her interactions with the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) and Winston (Ian McShane) that’s most pressing. Compounded with the debut of a sushi chef turned assassin in Zero (Mark Dacascos) and everything involving the elite council in their wild demands for fealty, provides Parabellum with a vivid sense of this underworld’s implicit value in subservience.
Parabellum is the first John Wick film to feel like it’s speaking to a broader, more politically disenchanted climate. Given the nature of these films, in their choreographed ballet of violence, they were always within arm’s reach of a larger political discussion. It’s not hard to imagine someone like Pauline Kael remarking on Parabellum’s stylistic gunplay as another example of the numbing of an American culture already sedated by real day-in-day-out gun violence. And what Parabellum does, more so than the previous two films, is deescalate the inherent stylistic flourish of its violence in favor of something more comical. In the end, some of these sequences – whether it be a towering villain battered to death with a library book or John Wick being thrown into a litany of glass cases – are played for humor rather than intended to impress a viewer for its physicality.
You can’t really fault it for going that route, especially given that Stahelski has so closely aligned the Wick character with Buster Keaton. The choreography of many of the fight sequences remain utterly baffling in their seamless execution, but there’s a self-awareness to it now, almost an obligation to get it out of the way. The film and Stahelski are concerned with something broader now, in what figures into a statement on the nature of liberty from memory, where the loss of Wick’s wife and dog remain permanent, unhealed lesions to his constitution. It’s exciting to see the series evolve in this way, where a literal cost is placed not just on a human being, but also a memory. By the film’s end, which demands another installment to the series, you’re left to consider the value of that memory and the ways we serve it, and the ways it services us.