It all started with a dog. A cute little beagle puppy called Daisy that Mr. Wick, a superannuated assassin, had been given as a gift after the death of his beloved wife.
She’d died of cancer, Mr. W. was inconsolable but found solace in the large and soulful eyes of his pooch, until Russian mobsters broke into his house to steal his car, knocked him out and did in Daisy. They did not live long enough to regret it, as John Wick (Keanu Reeves) emerged from retirement so slaughter them, all who work for them, anyone who ever said hello to them.
One of the many refreshing things about this action franchise is that its timeline is admirably concise. In John Wick: Chapter 2, only four days had elapsed when Wick was contacted by an Italian mobster to fulfil a blood oath by killing his sister. He went to Rome and did the deed, then realised it was all a trap and returned to New York to kill the gangster who hired him. But he did so on the consecrated ground of the Continental Hotel, a glitzy establishment that offers sanctuary and assistance to a secret brotherhood of assassins, and as a consequence, things are even worse for him in Chapter 3.
Excommunicated from the secret society, and with a $12 million bounty on his head, Wick becomes a beacon for every high-kicking clown in Manhattan who owns a gun or a knife – which turns out to be quite a lot of people.
There are moments, many moments, when the John Wick films feel like live action versions of a first person shoot-em-up video game, but this is not a criticism. There’s a sleekness to their conception, a grim, almost zen-like purity to their intent: they are unpretentious action films that combine an amusing cod mythology and breathtakingly sophisticated fight choreography to quite compelling effect.
They are violent, no question, and in Parabellum if anything the ante has been upped. There are only so many ways to kill a person, and at this stage the franchise has exhausted most of them: in John Wick 3 folk get stabbed in the eye, through the head, shot six ways from Sunday with peashooters, pistols, semi-automatics and what looked like a hi-tech elephant gun. At one point, a very large assailant is attacked and killed with a book – and they said the novel is dead.
It all sounds grim, but the violence in Wick films is so slick it’s almost cartoonish: at times you feel like you’re watching one of those grim noir graphic novels come to life. As the body count rises towards the high hundreds, John defeats all challengers and escapes New York for the relative safety of Casablanca, where he meets Sofia (Halle Berry, still defying time and gravity), a former colleague who has anger issues and has trained her twin German Shephards to aim for the male genitals. Ouch.
From there Wick heads out to into the wild Sahara, to wander moodily in the general direction of a mysterious Arab crime boss who may provide a way of lifting the open season hit on him.
The plots of these films are simple to the point of being simple-minded, but nothing particularly wrong with that. John Boorman’s 1967 masterpiece Point Blank, to which the John Wick canon could be generously compared, starred Lee Marvin as an outraged hoodlum swindled out of his share of a heist who goes around kicking and shooting everyone till he gets his money back.
The Wick films have a sly sense of humour, and undercut the gore with self-aware one-liners. When Sofia knocks seven bells out of a Casablancan crime boss for attacking one of her beloved hounds, she turns to Wick and says by way of explanation, “he shot my dog”. John nods and says “hey I get it!”.
One could get on one’s high horse about the graphic violence of course, and it would be a stretch to describe exploding people’s heads with a high-pressure rifle as strictly within the bounds of Queensbury Rules. But somehow, like its predecessors, John Wick 3 gets away with it. There is, to use an unlikely noun, a certain shabby charm to it all, helped of course by the inimitable Keanu, who carries this sort of thing off with effortless aplomb.
It’s a bit long perhaps, and we could have done without much of the last half hour, but those fights scenes really are exceptional, astonishing feats of choreography and editing that make mortal combat look like art.
(16, 131 mins)
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