Wednesday, July 17, 2024

‘John Wick 3’ Is the Best Action Film of the Year

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John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is pure cinema. All other films are imposters and can wait in the outer lobby. Chad Stahelski has given us not an action movie borne from Saturday morning cartoons but a ballet of fists, guns, knives, and swords.

Though musicals are making a comeback; action movies are now the ones which have the best choreography and camera work. In an era lousy with superhero action movies, the shots have gotten sloppier and the editing worse. All to make us feel as if something has happened without the due process of creating drama or evoking emotion. It is perhaps not ironic that the John Wick movies grow more elegiac and dreamlike and thus more evocative with each passing installment.

While framed in a clean three-act structure John Wick 3 is deceptively simple. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) runs away. People chase him. They stop. They fight. Then the people run away and John Wick chases them. Stop. Repeat.

It is a time-honored formula dating back to the silent era. Make no mistake about it John Wick while not a silent film in actuality, it is one in sensibility and feeling. The characters speak little and when they do it is usually because they are forced to.

Stahelski and his writers, of which there are four, set up each scene almost as a comedy of manners. Characters are often in the middle of something mundane when they are approached by another. Whether it be John Wick or the Adjudicator of the High Table (Asia Dillon). Often times characters speak as if they are only doing this so they can get back to watching the ball game.

The John Wick franchise has always been a world so strictly bound by rules and punishments, it’s a wonder anyone can have time to kill people just for work. The bare-bones script is cleanly structured so as to carry us from set piece to set piece. With a little bit of esotericism thrown in because it’s the third movie in a franchise about a hitman that is seemingly unstoppable, so it’s due.

The meticulous craftsmanship in framing composition, editing, production design, and camera movement combine to make the John Wick movies masterworks of aesthetic and movement. Superhero movies wished they looked this good. Heck, superhero movies think they do look this good. They do not.

Dan Lausten, who shot the last John Wick, as well as Guillermo Del Toro’s achingly beautiful The Shape of Water seems inspired by Caravaggio and Gareth Evans’ The Raid. At times the action feels like it is in danger of becoming a video game. Though as I have previously mentioned while the mechanics of storytelling are similar there is a difference.

Lausten and the editor Evan Schiff understand the differences and carefully avoid the pitfalls. One particular scene involving an old friend of John Wick, Sofia (Halle Berry), has her and John, along with her two German shepherds, fighting their way out of a Casablanca club. The camera is behind Berry at times, moving with her, like a video game.  The camera glides and cuts as she calls her dogs to finish the job. It is subtle but the difference, as they say, is all the difference.

Lausten, Schiff, and Stahelski, understand that action is best in long shots. Every cut is a break. So if you want sustained tension you cut less. Editing is the like the music of the film which exists within the framework of the story itself. The result is not an action scene but a blood-soaked opera. Noticeable also, is while Berry’s Sofia is not the main character, she is allowed her own action scene separate from John’s.

Stahelski has quietly made the John Wick franchise the most diverse followed only by the Fast and the Furious films. Action movies are so often the domain of straight white males. Which makes the John Wick movies a reminder that Kevin Feige can hem and haw all he wants, but diversity and representation, aren’t that hard to implement.

Just ask Asia Dillion, Halle Berry, Lance Reddick, or Ruby Rose. For once the color of a character’s skin, gender, or their queerness does not equal a death sentence. All allowed to play and their fate sealed by script contrivances and not societal ones. 

In a strange way, watching John Wick 3  I was reminded of Akira Kurosawa and Sam Peckinpah. Kurosawa, possibly one of the greatest directors ever to sit behind a camera, framed his shots like a painting. He also struggled with the notion of individuality while also understanding the necessity of the social contract. For him, the two were inseparable and were a part of the human condition.

Peckinpah was a master of violence but not as an exploitative impulse. For him, it was the way men expressed themselves. Rightly or wrongly the inability for men to be emotionally vulnerable and to put words to their feelings drive most of his films.

Both dealt with the concept of loyalty. Kurosawa debated if whether individuals or society deserved it more. Whereas Peckinpah had his characters discuss it outright. Ernest Borgnine’s character even spells it out in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

The gang is being hunted by the Marshalls, helped by one of their own. William Holden is the leader and has forgiven the betrayal because “He gave them his word.” Borgnine’s Dutch screams, “That ain’t what counts! It’s who you give it to!”

Dutch’s line rung in my ears as Winston (Ian McShane) and John come face to face. Winston has allowed John to break the rules and so must die. John wishes to live and so must kill Winston to get back in the High table’s good graces. It’s all so deliciously convoluted.

The constricting web of rules and regulations are such that Wick can’t help but break one to uphold another. It doesn’t help that he is desperately in search of his own set of morals and principles. John Wick 3 is John Wick in search of John Wick. Packed with action from stem to stern it is also at the same time deeply meditative.

His wife is dead and his dog is killed. He replaced the dog-but he can’t replace the wife. When asked by the head of the High Table why he wants to live, John stares, as he always does, moodily into the distance. “I want to live so I can remember her.”

Reeves is as always a joy to behold. Charismatic and reticent his hangdog face is the perfect contrast to the mind-blowing death-defying stunts going on around him. It is the Buster Keaton form of acting. Keaton, a famous silent movie icon, would often perform dangerous stunts in his films. Yet, no matter how incredible the feat or close to death he came, he always had the same stony face. Reeves laconic stare allows for the minute choreographed dance/fight scenes to appear so effortless.

All of this is by way of saying John Wick 3 when it isn’t giving us jaw-dropping mosaic action pieces is filled with characters pleading fealty or questioning it.  Funny, here in America, a country with a terrifying sense of nationalism, we have rarely explored such simple complex notions such as loyalty. Our movies are great for boasting about individual liberty but we so rarely see stories about people trying to figure how to both be themselves and be part of the collective.

Cinema is an art form of images-images that evoke an emotion or response. Contrary to popular belief this does not mean every image must be the model for an oil painting. Many shots in Patty Jenkins Wonder Woman fill me with great emotion. The images must be alive unto themselves.

The thought and care which have gone into the making of John Wick 3 are self-evident. All movies have thought and care put into them but some have more than others. Stahelski has the all too rare ability to understand what should go into a frame and what should not. All the while he is able to keep a sense of humor about the whole thing.

My favorite being a point where John is fighting a gang of Yakuza types in an antique weapon shop. He gets drawn into a fist fight with one of them that comes to a stalemate. It dawns on the two that they are, each, standing in front of a display case filled with knives. So the gunfight which has turned into a fist fight now turns into a knife fight.

John Wick as a character is a simple-almost blank slate. Yet, it’s the sadness in his eyes which many remember. The perfunctory nature of his brutal violence is more startling and revealing than reams of protracted dialogue. But most importantly while the hero, John Wick is not a good guy. He is a killer. We are on his side because they killed his puppy. He has no superpowers except he refuses to die.

Yet, to hear the audience I saw the film with, you’d never know it. Maybe that’s where we are right now. Angry, confused, and many of us feeling largely powerless and hopeless. John Wick is not an avatar for any kind of revolution. As Reeves plays him he is a minimalist who expresses little and does much. But Reeve’s Wick, aside from his emotional vulnerability, is a man terrorized by what he perceives to be his duty and what he thinks is right-often times ending in some tangled compromise which leaves him worse off than before.

Modern cinema has moved to a weird limbo. Our fantasies try to be more “realistic” and our realism is becoming more fantastical. I’m not sure what that says about us. I do know that if it means we get more movies like John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum and fewer movies like Pokemon Detective Pikachu than I’m all in.

Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment

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