The Violence in John Wick 3: Parabellum Is Cathartic and Fun

Armond White

It’s a great pop-culture moment when the title character of John Wick 3: Parabellum (Keanu Reeves) is asked, “What do you need?” and straight-faced Reeves, in the lanky hair and facial scars denoting underworld conflict, responds, “Guns, lots of guns.” Finally, the “gun violence” cliché favored by hack politicians and robotic media spokespeople becomes the butt of a joke.

Reeves’s answer repeats his 1999 futurist hit The Matrix, but it also defies moralizing pundits of all persuasions who repeat that “gun violence” malapropism as if screaming for redundant gun-control laws will get to the core of an American social problem. Their hypocrisy ignores the popular, real-world use of weaponry for self-protection and Second Amendment license.

John Wick 3: Parabellum is impudent fun precisely because it exults in all-American freedom from victimhood. The title comes from the Latin Si vis pacem, para bellum (If you desire peace, prepare for war). Wick, a crime-world renegade, defends himself however possible — with guns, fisticuffs, martial arts, any object at hand used as slapstick.

It’s no accident when John Wick runs through Times Square and an electronic projection of Buster Keaton — the movies’ original kinetic artist — looms overhead. Director Chad Stahelski, a stuntman-choreographer, glories in the fantasy pleasure and physics of self-defense. That is the theme of the entire survival-against-aggression John Wick series.

Produced by Reeves, according to his uncanny pop-culture taste (proven by the Bill & Ted movies, the Speed films, and The Matrix), this series provides his most effective role: a revenge-seeker trope that doesn’t wear thin like Liam Neeson’s gung-ho father in the Taken movies. This film-noir existentialism is filtered through video-game surrealism. John Wicks pays his way through the underworld using gold coins like a Super Mario Brother. Morality is evident in John Wick’s asking loyalty of fellow gangland denizens who live by Hobbesian desperation and observe Dante’s warning: “Consider your origins: You were not made to live as a brute but to follow virtue and knowledge.”

As John Wick outwits the clock that is counting down his excommunication from the criminal underworld (a $14 million bounty makes him a target for all comers), he bargains for cooperation from equally lethal desperadoes: Halle Berry, Anjelica Huston, Laurence Fishburne, and Mark Dacascos. The video-game storyline hits on something primal in the masculine psyche, but when Halle Berry’s Sophia commits to her “blood bond” with John Wick, it is the most satisfying, truly feminist argument for self-defense since the Margaux Hemingway film Lipstick. Berry’s blond-streaked ponytail feminizes older-wiser aggression, which is to universalize it. She commands her two protective Belgian Malinois dogs who attack men with phantom speed, always going for the groin. This characterization is the crowd-pleasing peak of Halle Berry’s career.

Not a pantywaist proselytizer for world peace, Stahelski knows there’s pleasure in movie kinetics. The sheer nerve of the relentless fight scenes is hilarious, and their proficiency is cinematically gratifying. Parabellum lifts him to action-movie heights.

Last year’s best trailer, for Christopher McQuarrie’s helter-skelter violence in Tom Cruise’s soulless Mission: Impossible: Fallout, promised a dazzling he-man battle in a gleaming, mirrored restroom between Cruise, Henry Cavil, and an Asian martial-arts assassin, but the snazzily designed scene never exploded. Stahelski combines gun violence and kung fu knowingly, as art. He conducts each action showpiece as a witty bullet ballet, out-wowing John Woo. John Wick’s opponents keep popping up — two, six, twelve, 30. He combats them serially like a Park Chan-wook line-up. But each bullet-bouncing, hatchet-swinging, limb-twisting encounter — starting in a weaponry archive with stained-glass windows, then a motorcycle marathon on the Williamsburg Bridge — recalls James Bond movie hyperbole done with musical rhythm.

The jokiness of the choreography mixes Bruce Lee’s The Chinese Connection with Michael Kidd’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. These are not fight scenes so much as kinetic rampages presented as whimsical interludes, such as when twin Asians congratulate Wick on his prowess, and then attack him with clam shuckers and unstoppable verve — they’re like hellbent Nicholas Brothers.

Parabellum’s new kind of violence lacks the visual flair of Olivier Megaton’s Transporter 3, and the video-game script departs from the classical virtues of Luc Besson’s action flicks. But through actors like Reeves, Berry, Fishburne, Huston, and Ian McShane, we’re reminded that commonplace humanity can accommodate the survival urge even if society abhors it. Russian ballet instructor Huston tells John Wick, “As you know, art is pain. Life is suffering.” Stahelski’s multiple kills give relief — they have a beautiful, quick finality, and the pummeling sound of twelve-gauge blasts almost tickles, like a punch line.

This is the first video-game narrative I find acceptable. (The Marvel movies lack comparable skill.) On-screen subtitles distancing us from the horror of violence are part of Stahelski’s video-game sophistication. He’s not one of the ’70s movie brats hewing to traditional morality, yet he still pays homage to the aesthetic beauty of his masters: Keaton, Boorman, Leone, Kurosawa. And Stahelski takes us way beyond the Indiana Jones gun-versus-scimitar scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark. A swimming-pool fracas even makes a joke of the underwater bullet traces in Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg’s humanism has been flipped (Spielberg doesn’t even have it anymore), yet Stahelski’s talent and Reeves’s good will prevent Parabellum from turning sour or sadistic.

To trust that we know the difference between fantasy and reality isn’t the same as desensitizing us to violence, not the same as the green-tinted Desert Storm bombing newscasts of the early Nineties that became the template for video games. Those extracted human life; Stahelski and Reeves abstract it. By the late Nineties, in the green-tinted The Matrix, the Wachowski sibling directors dished up postmodern rationales for dehumanization, but the green-tinted hotel-lobby shoot-out in Parabellum dispenses with excuses. The violent game is honestly understood as a game. At a time when a Trump-hating transsexual commits school shootings that trigger a coverup from moralizing phonies, the gun-control argument continues, but moviegoers can use the clear-headed catharsis provided by Parabellum’s comic understanding about the use of self-protective force. The certain popularity of John Wick 3: Parabellum is the strongest repudiation of political correctness imaginable.

It’s an addendum to the tragic realism of Dragged Across Concrete. Parabellum doesn’t take the use of force lightly but takes it to heart, fondly.

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