John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum ★★

This is what usually happens: a film creates a compelling fantasy world and fans clamor for more. So sequels build that world out, they show more of its mechanics, its people, its history. But “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum” demonstrates one little acknowledged principle of escalated world building: the inevitable outcome is bureaucracy. 


Any fantasy (and the Wick-verse is as fantastical as any franchise) relies as much on what it doesn’t reveal as on what it does, leaving enough to the imagination for fans to revel in the possibilities. But with each installment, sequels tend to tip that balance towards revelation and away from mystery. Things that were at first only suggested become explicit, mysteries are explained, and idiosyncrasies metastasize into red tape. Suddenly filmmakers find themselves in a position where building the world becomes its own motivation. Things no longer happen in the world because of the internal logic of its characters, and the films become about the exigent imperatives of the world: build out more of it, make it more real, shine light on more and more of its dark corners. And keep explaining, explaining, explaining. 


This is what we saw in the Star Wars prequels, where the mystery of the Force somehow turned into midichlorians and a galactic senate making its galactic sausage. And it’s what happened in the wizarding world of Harry Potter, too, where character arcs that are usually resolved in three acts got drawn out over a nearly interminable number of filmed Fandom.com pages masquerading as cinema. 


In the Wick-verse this tendency towards bureaucracy literally manifests itself as a bureaucracy. So we see in this latest episode even more of what we began to see in “John Wick: Chapter 2”: more jargon, more prototocols, more paperwork, more dialogue devoted to characters shouting the world’s rules back at one another. The end result is tedium, but what’s really happening is that the beautifully succinct motivation that drove the original “John Wick,” that revenge fantasy that was so simple and effective as to be almost poetic, has become now fully diffused. It’s no longer clear what Wick wants, what he’s fighting for, why he exists. Instead he’s become little more than a tour guide, an excuse for us to shuffle from one tediously “weird” department of the bureaucracy to another. Where this universe used to be about a man who could kill with a pencil, it now instead devotes itself to a morass of tiresome pencil pushers. 


To his credit director Chad Stahelski has at least some unconscious understanding of this dynamic, some sense that the world he co-created is spinning out of control. This is obvious in the way he tries to ply it with more and more of what drew us to it in the first place: incomparably awesome action sequences. Sometimes it works; halfway through, Stahelski pulls off the most successful human/canine fight choreography in film history. But mostly it’s tiresome, even numbing. Robbed of his core motivation, Wick’s fighting seems rote, repetitive and non-sensical, even as the fights have become more logistically complex. Why watch these films at all now if that thrill is gone? A world in which the fights are boring is not the world that John Wick deserves.