The John Wick series is no stranger to video games. In 2014, in a clever bout of cross-promotion, the titular hitman was added as a playable character the co-op FPS heist game, Payday 2, where you could run through the streets and banks and vaults of Washington D.C. as a loud, bastardised version of the stoic, silent, sultry assassin presented in the films. In 2018, as a reward for reaching rank 100 in season three of Fortnite’s Battle Royale mode, you could unlock a similarly chic, bearded character known as The Reaper, colloquially referred to as John Wick given his immediate likeness. This month, Fortnite’s developers bit the bullet and introduced an official (much less cartoonish, much more handsome) John Wick skin to the game – a real “I’m you, but cooler” moment.
The John Wick films owe much of their success to replicating a video game-lite aesthetic: a cinematic translation of what it feels like to play any kind of sleek action shooter, all silent protagonist and guns ablaze. There’s a vague video game “coolness” that the John Wick series has succeeded in articulating – it’s hard to pin its influence down to just one title, altogether feeling more reminiscent of some amalgam of the past decade’s AAA titles.
The best parts of the games that John Wick’s marketing team has aligned their series with is the simplicity of their design. Both Payday and Fortnite present an addictive, repetitive concept – the former offering multifarious, replayable heists; the latter presenting a 100-player king-of-the-hill Battle Royale mode – which keep dopamine levels high and controller batteries low. Both games are iteratively expanded on as players invest more time and demand more “““content””” in return, but at their core, even as the games evolve beyond their original conceit, they trigger the same chemical rush.
As the John Wick series has progressed – building itself from a humble $20-million revenge flick to a highly lucrative, $75-million, second-defining-role-of-Keanu-Reeves’-career blockbuster – it has trod the same developmental steps as the video games it mimics. With each iteration, the ante has been upped substantially: the grieving former hitman from the first film is pulled back into the game in the second, only to find himself excommunicado at the juncture between sequel and threequel.
This is right where Chad Stahelski’s punctuation-rife (à la the last few Mission: Impossibles) John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum picks up. Wick (Keanu Reeves) – having killed a High Table associate within the strictly off-limits, demarcated grounds of the series’ dapper spy hotel, The Continental – is now a marked man, dragging himself and his best dog pal (a staffie, very handsome) through Manhattan in search of safety and probably another secret stash of weapons. The clock is quite literally ticking: an anachronistic switchboard operating room counts down the minutes before Wick finds himself at the hands of an army of eager assassins as he fumbles his way through the characteristically wet, neon-lit streets of New York.
It’s in these pressurised opening moments that the film finds its highest points. A fight scene in the halls of the New York Public Library gives cahiers du cinema a new meaning: Wick is greeted with an unexpectedly early booking in the shape of a beastly 7ft assassin (NBA star Boban Marjanovic) and the proceeding punches, kicks, and attentive spatial coherence reveal Parabellum’s strong suit – its kinetic, oft-amusing action sequences. Despite Chapter 2’s occasional grandeur, its bridging fight scenes often fell into a pattern of two-on-one, punch-disarm-shoot repetition which did little to sustain momentum in the moments where the universe-expanding narrative mythology fell awkwardly flat.
Reeves’ physicality has forever been his strong suit and here it’s pushed to its limits in an emporium of near-death situations. Chapter 2 felt bloated from its onslaught of gunfights where Wick pulled the same move on every set of hired goons ad infinitum, but here, this visceral violence is taken to a new, gleefully graphic level (too far, apparently). There’s a scene in the opening of the film involving knives, tomahawks, axes(?) and a skyscraper’s worth of glass that’s absolutely some of the best filmmaking this year, action or otherwise. Sure, John Wick knows how to tote a pistol better than anyone but, as they say, never bring a gun to a knife fight – that’s just boring. (Indiana Jones guilty.)
The gleefulness of its violence is a refreshing taste given the decidedly self-seriousness of the series’ ever-expanding lore. Between scenes where Wick’s fighting for his life, we’re introduced to these grandiose characters played by high-profile actors, donning fancy titles (Anjelica Huston’s The Director, Saïd Taghmaoui’s The Elder) who are given their 15-minutes of fame to wax poetic about some facet of Wick’s backstory before being killed off or never seen again.
The best video game films take the logic and aesthetic of an IP and weave it into the form in an exciting way, negating the need for a cache of backstory justifying the adaptation and wasting precious assassin time having its characters stand around like mythology-spouting robots. (Assassin’s Creed  guilty as shit.) Parabellum at its worst reminds me of these kinds of video game narratives, with a misguided reliance on story as opposed to gameplay, on lore rather than just simple… gore. It too often feels like we’re stuck on a side mission talking to a random NPC in the depths of some RPG; a cinematic fetch quest that distracts from the best parts of the series – the fighting!
These narrative faults don’t really matter though – the story is just window dressing (or an allegory for cancel culture?) for a series that has given us more than we deserve. Not only does Parabellum give us the image of a hot and sweaty Keanu Reeves riding a horse (a reference to Lil Nas X’s hit single, ‘Old Town Road’) but amid Wick’s globetrotting (he’s James Bond now) we also get to see Halle Berry pull a bunch of stunts alongside a pair of highly-trained attack dogs in… Casablanca? While it’s great stuff on paper, the execution sometimes falls a bit short.
Towards the end of the film, before its obligatory sequel setting-up, Parabellum delivers a redux of Chapter 2’s climatic ‘Reflections of the Soul’ sequence, matching its cellophane-foil, teenage-boy-wallpaper aestheticism but actually delivering a worthwhile bout of action within the glass-house space. (Ruby Rose innocent.) It doubles down on that haunted house feeling, remixing Resident Evil 2 (2019) vibes within martial art boundaries – there’s infinitely more glass than the earlier knife sequence, and we’re nothing if not better off for it. It’s pure dopamine, a return to the essentials that lifted the series off its feet: engaging the best parts of a video game, Parabellum is video game film packaged as a Keanu Reeves vehicle where Reeves can barely hide how professionally trained he is, despite being punched, kicked, stabbed, shot, hit by a car, chased on a horse, and drop-kicked through a ludicrous amount of glass panes. More of that in Chapter 4, please.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is now playing in Australian cinemas.
Samuel Harris is a freelance film and music writer, an Editor of Rough Cut and a Michael Bay apologist. He is currently undertaking Honours in Media at RMIT University, writing a little something something about post-cinema and the desktop horror film. Do not tweet him at @samewlharris.