Tag Archives: C+

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 3–PARABELLUM

Grade: C+

Even the most dedicated action junkie might find himself exhausted by “John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum,” Chad Stahelski’s latest installment of the saga about a legendary hit-man brought out of retirement to take vengeance on those who messed with his dog and his car. The movie strings together a chain of flashy martial arts fisticuffs, explosively stylish swordfights and garish gun battles, some with animal partners, but by the end the excitement they’re intended to generate has mutated into something very close to tedium. One can get too much even of a good thing.

The movie begins where the last one ended—with Wick (Keanu Reeves) running through the rain-soaked streets of New York, a hunted man after he has desecrated the Continental Hotel, the “safe zone” for assassins in the city, by killing a rival there. The High Table, which runs the “union” of professional murderers and apply the rules they all must follow, is about to declare open season on Wick by excommunicating him and posting a $14 million bounty for his death. Every assassin in the city, and the world (and there seems to be a bunch of them on every block—apparently it’s one calling that never has a shortage of applicants) will be out to collect.

So after depositing his beloved canine with his old friend Winston (Ian McShane), the manager of the Continental, and Charon (Lance Reddick), the place’s unflappable concierge, Wick is off to try to save himself. After dealing with an introductory bevy of assailants—a giant in the NYC library, where he stops to collect some important belongings, a bunch of nasties in a knife-and-hatchet shop, another gang that chases him into a stable for carriage horses—and having his wounds tended to by an underground doctor just as the excommunication deadline strikes, he’s off to visit his old mentor the Director (Anjelica Huston), a menacing Russian ballet master who grudgingly books him passage to Casablanca, where he plans to meet the head of the High Table and negotiate his reinstatement.

There Wick asks for help from another old acquaintance, Sophia (Halle Berry), who holds a grudge against himself despite the fact that he once saved her daughter. Use of another of his old markers, or I.O.U.s, leads her and her capable dogs to join him in visiting Berrada (Jerome Flynn), a Table power player who can direct him to the group’s reclusive leader (Saïd Taghmaoui). That encounter results in another bloodbath, in which Sophia and her dogs play a major role, but it finally leads to Wick’s face-to-face with the leader, who offers him reinstatement if he returns to New York and kills Winston.

Winston is already being threatened for having helped Wick by the Table’s malevolent Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), who has also her sights set on the Director and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), another old Wick ally. She has also hired Zero (Mark Dacascos), a sushi chef with special expertise in knives, to deal with all the Table’s enemies when Wick returns to the city. Will Wick side with Winston or kill him?

The upshot is a final battle at the Continental that involves scads of the Table’s armored soldiers, Winston’s staff, Zero and his army—and Wick, of course. The prolonged finale ends with the obligatory final face-off between Wick and Zero, though the makers have a final twist up their sleeve that promises another sequel. “Parabellum,” after all, means the preparation for war, not the war itself.

The action sequences, of course, are the raison d’être for all the John Wick movies, and Stahelski, Reeves, their army of stuntmen, cinematographer Dan Lausten, and editor Evan Schiff combine their skills to create a succession of wild set pieces. Unfortunately, even as they increase in size and trickery, they grow increasingly tiresome. There’s plenty of verve in the early ones—the initial clash in the library, the knife-and-hatchet encounter, and the carriage-horse routine are all imaginative and exhilarating (if awfully explicit in violence quotients).

By the time Wick gets to North Africa, however, overkill sets in, in every sense. The battle that Wick, Sophia and her canines engage in with Berrada’s nearly endless supply of minions goes on way too long, and grows more and more repetitive—by the twentieth time we’re treated to a shot of some anonymous turbaned henchman being attacked in the groin by a dog, the sight has lost whatever shock effect it might once have had. The final confrontation, with lots of glass and mirrors, is more than a little reminiscent of the one in the last movie (as well as plenty of other films unrelated to the franchise), and it too feels endless, though it’s enlivened somewhat by Dacascos’ jokey contributions.

His performance one of the pleasures in the picture, along with the customarily smooth turns by McShane, Fishburne and Reddick. Elsewhere the casting yields fewer rewards than you might expect. Huston and Berry sink their teeth into their roles almost as much as Sophia’s dogs sink theirs into villains’ private parts, but even what are essentially comic-book characters deserve more than that. And Dillon is an utter stick as the Adjudicator—while Taghmaoui makes a rather feeble ultimate villain.

Unlike a great many sequels, “John Wick 3” probably won’t disappoint fans of the series; to cite another picture from Reeves’s résumé, it’s no “Matrix Revolutions.” But it is a bloated chapter in the saga, one that proves that more can actually mean less.

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2

Grade: C+

If carefully-choreographed, slickly-shot ballets of violence are all you demand in a movie, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is the picture for you. The sequel to the surprise hit from 2014, about a retired hit-man (Keanu Reeves) who, like Michael Corleone, was dragged back into action against his will (when a mobster’s nasty son stole his car and killed his doggy) to wreak vengeance on the malefactors, is pretty much a repeat of its predecessor, adding little to it beyond some background information on the shadowy cult of assassins Wick belongs to. But it’s done up on a larger canvas, and more spectacularly. The result is a thoroughly brainless orgy of fights, shoot-outs, foot pursuits and car chases that should dazzle fans of such fare while leaving anyone who’d like a bit of steak to go with the sizzle cold.

The movie starts up where the first one left off, with Wick invading the headquarters of the Tarasov crime clan to retrieve his 1969 Mustang. Since he’s already killed Viggo (Michael Nyqvist) and his son Josef (Alfie Allen), the only one left is Viggo’s brother Abram (Peter Stormare), whose reaction shots as mayhem explodes in the distance provide the saving grace of the sequence; the action, on the other hand is solidly staged but actually quite rote. (A question: the sequence opens with a car-motorcycle chase through streets crammed with traffic until the cyclist is downed on a street conveniently devoid of any other vehicles. Why did they all suddenly disappear to?)

Anyway, after finishing off his mission of revenge at the Tarasov firm, Wick goes home (having replaced his dead pet), arranges for his pal Aurelio (John Leguizamo) to haul off the Mustang for a major repair job, and begins restoring order to his weapons room when he’s suddenly visited by an old colleague, smarmy Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scarmarcio), who holds Wick’s “marker”—a promise to do whatever task the owner requires, just one of the revelations about the internal operations of the criminal cartel to which both belong. He wants John to kill Santino’s own sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini), who has inherited their family’s seat at the group’s “High Table” that Santino desires for himself. When Wick pleads disinterest, D’Antonio blows up his house, which persuades John that he’d better do what he’s asked.

There follows another elaborate sequence of mayhem in Rome, where Gianna’s investiture is to occur. Wick confronts her, but in one of the picture’s strangest twists she actually kills herself. Nonetheless her death is taken very hard by another of John’s old colleagues, Cassian (Common), who has been serving as her bodyguard and now puts Wick in his sights.

That’s the least of our antihero’s concerns, however, since the thoroughly treacherous Santino has now put out a general hit on him, inviting all the assassins—and they seem to be everywhere, in all possible guises—to earn a cool $7 million by snuffing Wick out. Wick has to run a gauntlet of them—including Cassian—before tracking down Santino to an art gallery where, amid hundreds of mirrors, windows and multi-colored strobe lights (which, despite all the flamboyance, still can’t hold a candle to the closing sequence from “The Lady from Shanghai”), he must annihilate yet another small army of opponents with guns and martial-arts moves, including D’Antonio’s chief enforcer, a mute named Ares (Ruby Rose), who is presented as something special but proves, in the final analysis, to be both inept and totally incapable of matching John blow for blow.

Of course, that’s true of all John’s opposites, who appear for all their practice to be rather poor marksmen and knife-wielders. Happily, they also follow the old chopsocky convention of never attacking en masse, but in small groups (two or three at the most), considerately waiting offstage to rush into the fray until Wick has finished off the preceding bunch. It takes no crystal ball to know that Wick will emerge not unscathed but, if the worse for wear, at least not dead, like everyone he’s left behind in his hail of carnage. (It also helps that he seems able to recover from stab wounds and bullet holes in mere minutes.)

It must be admitted that director Stahelski, the former stunt man who co-directed the first film with David Leitch and goes solo here, is proficient at staging the action sequences, even if most of them overstay their welcome, and editor Evan Schiff don’t cut cinematographer Dan Laustsen’s glistening widescreen images so hysterically that they turn into jagged bits of mush. Their work is made easier by the fact that Reeves continues to do many of the stunts himself, and quite convincingly. It’s in the expository scenes between the bursts of action that the star is weak, evincing little more than a generalized moroseness over the death of his beloved wife (Bridget Moynahan, in what amounts to a few flashbacks and photos) that feels more like simple lethargy.

More pleasing is the supporting work of returnees Ian McShane as Wilson, the manager of the New York branch of the Continental Hotel, the “safe area” for all the cartel’s assassins, and Lance Reddick as Charon, the establishment’s unflappable concierge. Both carry off their duties with practiced elegance and enjoyment of the few nuggets of wit that screenwriter Derek Kolstad has come up with. There are also nice turns by Franco Nero, as the manager of the Rome branch of the Continental, and Peter Serafinowitz, as a weapons dealer who offers up guns and knives as though they were delectable items on a restaurant menu. It’s fun, as well, to have Laurence Fishburne show up as a character called the Bowery King, who helps Wick get to D’Antonio toward the close. A pity that Scamarcio makes such a pallid villain, and that as his henchwoman Rose is no better. A hit-man version of James Bond—which is what the “John Wick” series obviously aspires to become—needs strong villains, just like its model; and neither Scamarcio nor Rose fill the bill.

Essentially “John Wick: Chapter 2” follows the old Joe Bob Briggs rule for sequels—just make the same movie over again. It also sets the stage for a third installment, which frankly doesn’t look to be much different from the first two. Given that, one has to wonder what familiarity will eventually breed among the audience.