In a world where the fast are also furious and the missions are always impossible, it’s difficult to imagine something quite like the John Wick franchise. It has this unique energy, this brain that operates differently than those of its fellow action flicks. And now, three installments in, the action-adventure series has just begun scratching its world’s surface. The latest entry, Parabellum, reveals more about the all-knowing High Table even as it takes a deep dive into John Wick’s past, present, and potential future.
Parabellum is tasked with answering one basic — but crucial–question: Does Keanu Reeves kicking ass hold up a third time? The answer is a resounding yes. But it does more than that. It offers up superficial entertainment with layers that audiences have the option to peel back. Blockbusters with optional profundity are rare. The film is just as appealing as popcorn entertainment as it is a character examination and it gives viewers the power to choose which way they want to enjoy it. Even audiences who only want well-choreographed knife fights and protracted shootouts sense something more, and that enriches their experience without them realizing it.
John Wick breaks an assailant’s neck against a vertically-placed book and the audience loses it. The appeal of something so shamelessly gruesome lies in humanity’s schadenfreude. We vicariously let loose through Wick, even if we’d never shoot a dude three times in the chest before capping him in the head. In this case, violent fiction is easy to love because we have nothing to gain or lose by rooting for a merciless assassin. We just cheer as we watch him kill shit. And that’s great. He’s rage personified, a ruthless man who serves justice to hapless adversaries who think they can go blade-to-blade, fist-to-fist with him. That’s not interesting. That’s just cool.
What is interesting is that the real appeal of John Wick goes much deeper than reveling in fictional pain. It all boils down to both Wick’s humanity and our need for good stories. Director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad use the pull of mythology to involve viewers in Wick’s adventures, working in weighty themes about consequences and responsibilities for good measure.
But who–or what–is John Wick to us? What good is a character piece without a good character at its center?
John Wick is a good character because he’s a good theme. The Elder says it best: “Why would a man fight so hard to end up back where he started?” Or something close to that. That sums up John perfectly. Even the memory of love is powerful to him, and while love isn’t necessarily the prevailing theme here, it is the galvanizing force for this man.
The villains are different beasts altogether. The High Table’s mythic reputation alone is a governing power. Their authority built into the feng shui of the Continental, the High Table is a presence no assassin can deny or disobey. If the members of the High Table are the Wickverse’s version of gods, then the Continental is their temple and the adjudicators their pious enforcers. The rules and systems these assassins must respect weave themselves into the narrative in inventive ways, proving to be integral links in the franchise’s DNA. A hotel where assassins–even ones with beef– can mingle without worrying about being gunned down. An underworld beneath the underworld called The Bowery (a Dutch word meaning “farm” or “plantation”), where a grizzled Lawrence Fishburne talks to pigeons and sends his underlings off to masquerade as homeless people. Fishbourne’s character, The Bowery King, believes he is an entity existing outside of the rules and regulations of Assassin World. Conversely, Assassin World’s adjudicators, in particular, have a very different idea of where The Bowery King sits on the totem pole. As you can imagine, this leads to some…friction between the two. And not the fun kind of friction.
Sure, John’s this larger-than-life presence with breathtaking skill and resolve, but he’s got more character flaws than he has bullets (okay, maybe not that many). He’s stubborn, relentless, and way too trigger-happy for his own damn good, but he’s possessed by grief.
And that ties into what some of what separates these movies. Put simply, the franchise has depth and darkness that other action flicks lack. Take Mission Impossible: Fallout as a recent example. That film shows us glimpses of Ethan Hunt’s potential to do and be bad things, but it doesn’t dive much deeper than that. He doesn’t teeter on the edge of corruption. He just shuffles toward the drop, peers into the chasm, and leaps back. Granted, there is an appeal in the merciful hero. Fallout annihilated its competition at the box office and is now considered one of the best entries in its franchise. But that’s more about spectacle than it is about storytelling. And that’s why the bar for those films is raised each time a new one releases. Because that franchise doesn’t have talking points. It doesn’t have consequences. It has hooks that brain Henry Cavill, outrageous stunts Tom Cruise performed himself, and dozens of death-defying situations that somehow still allow viewers to suspend their disbelief.
But Wick doesn’t hesitate to fuck people up. Especially if you kill his puppy. But I digress.
Wick’s ruthlessness is the same no-holds-barred approach that made Liam Neeson so easy to rally behind in Taken. To this day, that film enjoys a $150 million lifetime gross. But by the time Taken 3 hit theaters, audiences weren’t nearly as interested. According to Box Office Mojo, the film’s lifetime box office numbers capped at $89 million, $50 million less than those of Taken 2. Interest waned as the franchise progressed, and soon it fizzled. So far, the John Wick movies haven’t shown any signs of lost steam.
Unlike Taken, John Wick is a fascinating talking point. There’s more happening. More to discuss. An action film about consequences is almost unfathomable in today’s cinematic landscape, mainly because in most high-octane blockbusters, consequences are dismissed and thrown out the window.
If you haven’t seen these movies but you enjoy brutal action and incredible world-building, where the fuck have you been?
John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum is now playing in theaters.
Did you know?
For history buffs, the irony of the title “Bowery King” is made clear through the contrast with the “Bowery B’hoy” archetype used widely throughout the 1800s. Characterized as urchins who came from the New York City street of the same name, “Bowery B’hoys” lived poorly but proudly. They loved hookers, drinking, and fighting. They loved the theatre, too. But mostly hookers and fighting. So yeah, pretty typical for 19th-century city folk. It’s why applying the term “king” to such…unsavory characters is as wildly incongruous as it is unabashedly creative.
The commercial district itself is a place that has seen affluence, squalor, cultural renaissances, and all manner of upending developments. Today, the neighborhood continues to change and grow. The area has undergone so many changes that it’s difficult to tell where it’s headed next.