John Wick: Chapter Three -- Parabellum
Readers bear with me. This review is going to end with appreciation for architect I.M. Pei. But it’s a long way to Tipperary.
The film critic I most admire, and who shaped my own 43-year 5,000-movie reviewing “career,” was Roger Ebert (1942-2013). He avoided skewering actors or directors simply for sport. A knowledgeable critic with a big heart.
He made exceptions, of course, as when he unloaded on Rob Reiner’s “North:” “I hated this movie. Hated, hated, hated, hated this movie. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it.”
Ebert’s natural optimism and gentleness led to a philosophy of reviewing that I’d describe as situational rather than absolute. By that I mean he would evaluate films within their genre, which means he’d contrast and compare films to other examples of that type.
But this situational approach – a type of moral relativism - leads to a critical moral crisis when we encounter ultra-violent films, bloodthirsty horror movies or patriarchal R-rated sex comedies celebrating boys behaving badly.
What now? Rate them within their genre? Or hold them accountable to a higher moral standard?
I vacillate on this ethical issue. On balance, I’d say I’m more absolutist than situational, refusing to give a stupid comedy high marks for being a “less dumb and less dumber.”
But while my Quaker sensibility deeply regrets and resists ultra-violent films, I have created a somewhat situational loophole for what I’ve called “blood poetry,” violent stories which capture the dark side of life with elegance, beauty and poetry.
“The Godfather” fits that description, as do the films of Sergio Leone, such as “Once Upon a Time in the West” and “Once Upon a Time in America.”
Which brings us to “John Wick: Chapter Three – Parabellum,” the story of a hitman, Wick, with a $14 million bounty on his head. His mistake? Killing a fellow killer in a “safe haven,” a luxury hotel where assassins sip wine together and pledge not to misbehave. Honor amongst thieves, yada yada.
Wick, played by a brooding Keanu Reeves, misbehaved and now he’s on the run.
Wick heads to the library, in hopes using his library card to borrow a secret stash of medallions, markers sometimes accepted as get-out-of-jail-free cards within the underworld. Wick will invest these markers wisely in hopes of removing himself from the crosshairs.
Wick violates the library’s quiet policy, as he wipes out pursuers in the stacks. Shhhh. Keep it down!
But the plot hardly matters. Wick’s running for his life. Period.
In this film, Mr. Wick, hitman extraordinaire, puts a knife directly into a man’s eye. A dog is shot at close range. And there are 30 to 40 times, I lost count, when Wick shoots a villain in the head at close range, camera drooling.
Repulsive. Exploitive. Gratuitous. Yes, yes, yes.
And drop-dead gorgeous, almost all the way. The artistry is simply stunning. One critic aptly called it “a glorious ballet of bullets and violence.”
Imagine dozens of people engaged in martial arts mayhem with bodies flying and knives slicing –counterpointed by the melodic strings of Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons.”
Or imagine a trio of Asian assassins walking onto the stage during a ballet rehearsal and moving in synch with the dancers, almost as if Balanchine had written them into the production.
For the digitally inclined, imagine surreal sets – a lot like swirling Mac screen savers - as background for intricately choreographed fights to the death.
Which brings us to Tipperary: the death of architect I.M. Pei, creator of stunning work such as the Louvre Pyramid and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art.
I miss Pei, even though I never knew him.
Now “Parabellum” is no Louvre Pyramid, but Chad Stahelski’s film is a masterful visual trip.
Please spare me the emails about diminishing Pei by mentioning him in a John Wick review. I get it.
Pei reminded us that architecture can touch the soul – that design can be spiritual.
Film is a collaborative art that combines many art forms, including writing, acting, dancing, music, cinematography and set design – the architecture of cinema.
Sometimes one aspect of a film sweeps us away, so we block out the dirt and enjoy the nuggets.
I hated the head shots. I cringed at the eye-stabbing.
But I was quite swept away by the visuals, the Vivaldi and the dance.
I can’t exit without a shout out to an extraordinary cast. My favorites included Halle Berry, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Anjelica Huston and the always mesmerizing Asia Kate Dillon from “Billions” and “Orange is the New Black.”
Dillon identifies as non-binary, but in my books she’s a prime number.
Note to Marvel: Showcase Asia!
What’s a stellar cast like this doing in an action thriller? That’s my point: This is an artful assassin adventure replete with buried treasures.
So, I guess “Parabellum” qualifies as a guilty pleasure for me. Maybe I shouldn’t have liked it, but I did.
Rest in peace, Pei.