JOHN WICK 3: Is John Wick The Bad Guy?

This contains spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.

What does a John Wick movie owe us? Action, for sure, and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, gives us that in spades. It is some of the most accomplished hand-to-hand fighting action we’ve ever seen in an American film; I’ve seen it compared to the work in The Raid, which is high praise and – while I wouldn’t quite go that far – indicates just how excellent the fight choreography is in this film.

But I think a John Wick movie owes us more. What has made this franchise so successful – the third film is the biggest earner yet – is the strange combination of ass-kicking, weirdo world building and a deep emotional core that motivated it all. The first John Wick was a sleeper hit not because Keanu Reeves was a star – the film came out in one of the occasional valleys in Reeves’ mainstream popularity – but rather because we cared about what happened. It took a standard revenge plot and made it special by making it about a dead dog. We’ve seen revenge fantasies driven by dead wives and children, but there was something so tender about the dead dog that we all fell head over heels for John Wick, the assassin who really just wanted out of the game. 

But now, by the time John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum opens, we’ve lost sight of that emotional through line. The dog has been avenged, and how. John Wick is now on the run, after having killed a member of the High Table of assassins on the sacred ground of the Continental Hotel, where no blood is supposed to be spilled. Excommunicado from the assassin’s guild, and with a huge bounty on his head, Wick is a dead man running, and so he hatches a plan to survive.

The first film made itself special by introducing a new twist on a tired trope. This movie had a chance to do the same but it blew it; John Wick is now a standard regretful killer, looking to make amends for his crimes (in this case breaking the rules of his society). What could be interesting is that Wick’s attempt for amends is not inherently violent; he’s looking to meet with the head of all the assassins and make his case and make good what he did wrong.

This is unique. Again, usually in this kind of a movie the regretful hero is going to make up for his violent past by killing other, more violent men. To have John Wick spend the whole movie trying to get a meeting to ask forgiveness is cool (it’s what makes The Bourne Supremacyso absolutely special). But the script doesn’t get us where it needs to get us, and as the title warns us (parabellum is Latin for ‘prepare for war’) it isn’t going to go down that way anyhow. 

What ends up happening is that literally the entire narrative is wheel-spinning; John Wick travels across the globe and kills hundreds of men, gets his meeting, pledges his loyalty, is given a mission to test his loyalty and, like one scene later, balks at that and ends up literally exactly where he was at the beginning of the movie. The film then barrels to a conclusion that is simply setting up John Wick: Chapter 4, and it’s clear that this film – which will pit Wick against the High Table of assassins leadership, is what John Wick: Chapter 3 should have been.

This whole movie is a placeholder.

That’s sort of okay, because the action is great. But that isn’t enough. John Wick had incredible motivation in the first film, now he has none. Why does he want to live? To remember his dead wife, which is possibly the weirdest and the least compelling reason for a guy to kill hundreds of people we have ever seen. I’m sure in story meetings it sounded swooningly romantic, but in practice it’s nonsense, and it offers none of the clean drive of avenging his dog. John Wick has no reason to stay alive, and the movie is unable to grapple with this central problem in any meaningful way. 

By having no emotional center, and by having John Wick hunted for his clear and flagrant rule violation in the last film, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (this title is like a track name on a prog rock album), opens the door for us to take a closer look at the carnage Wick is causing. At first it seems okay, because the henchmen he is brutally slaying are coming after him. But then you take a step back and realize literally every single one of these guys is defending the status quo into which John Wick himself is looking to return. There is more than one scene of John Wick fighting with a guy and slowly stabbing him as he resists, and these scenes made me realize something: 

John Wick is the villain of this film. 

He has broken the rules. He doesn’t think the rules are bad or onerous, he just simply didn’t want to follow them. He doesn’t think the system is inherently corrupt, and in fact he is looking to return to its good graces. If he felt the rules were unfair or bad, or that they were hurting innocents, that would be one thing. But John Wick is willing to cut off a finger to get back into the system, so he’s clearly not against it. 

When John Wick cuts off his finger he is making a choice, and that choice is to do what the assassin king asks of him. This choice is made freely, not under duress. John Wick understands the weight of the choice, and he makes the decision simply because he wants to live. Not because it’s the right thing to do, but because he wants to live. And then, when called upon to actually execute the pledge he has freely made, John Wick backtracks on it. 

It’s really weird when you think about it. This is the hero of the movie? Nobody was holding anything over Wick’s head when he pledged to kill Winston, his friend and the keeper of the New York City Continental. There were no hostages, no innocent lives caught in the balance. If John Wick were a good guy, even in this world of assassins, he would understand that the greatest way to honor the memory of his wife would be to get out of the killing game and to refuse to kill his friend, even if it meant his own death. What value is there in remembering his dead, loving wife if he’s going to have to be a murderer to do so?

None of this is a problem in a different franchise, but I think that the John Wick franchise is built on the hangdog sadness of late-period Keanu, and that means the movie needs him to have a strong emotional throughline that will allow us to cheer on his nasty, painful executions of humans by the dozens. But this film has zero emotional throughline, and John Wick is returned to his starting position by the end.

I guess the main narrative thrust of this movie is to introduce new characters and settings that will come into play in the next film, but this kind of stalling sucks in movies. Yeah, Halle Berry and her dogs were cool (although their fight scene in Casablanca becomes almost supernaturally repetitive. The John Wick films are in the “We have ten stunt guys and they will keep putting on different masks to make it look like there are more of them” genre, and you really feel the fact that it’s the same bunch of dudes in different headscarves getting mowed down on the same set), and it’s wild seeing Anjelica Huston as the cruel dance instructor who trained John Wick, but these characters clearly exist here only as set-up for their roles in the next movie, when it’s all-out war. There’s no reason this movie shouldn’t have been all-out war! 

We can’t know the process behind the making of this movie, but there are hints of a better story that could have been told. The film positions John Wick as a mythical Western hero – he even rides a horse in a scene – and the Big Bad is a type familiar to Western audiences. He’s the guy who wants to try his luck against the fastest gun in the territory (see The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for a recent take on this trope). There’s a story here, but John Wick: Chapter 3 doesn’t quite mine it. Rather it plays the Big Bad for weird laughs, turning him into a John Wick fanboy.

I guess people know Mark Dacascos from Iron Chef, but he’s Mani from Brotherhood of the Wolf to me; Dacascos has long been one of those great martial artists/actors who never quite seemed able to make the break into more mainstream fare that he deserved. He’s great in John Wick: Chapter 3, and it’s not his fault that the script turns his Zero into something of a comedic afterthought. His comedy wouldn’t be so bad if he had a breakout badass moment – honestly, Zero should have killed Lance Reddick’s Concierge to establish his bona fides – but he never quite gets one. 

This, I think, is indicative of the larger script problems of the movie. Nothing resonates as it should; all of the action works, more or less, but the plot and the characters don’t sing in the way they should in a John Wick movie. These are action movies where we love the characters and their journeys. 

I find myself in a weird spot with this film – I truly enjoyed it when I watched it. A lot of the action is next-level, and the violence is shocking. But with all the character emotion drained from the proceedings I just couldn’t stop thinking about the point of the violence; the series has devolved into violence for violence’s sake. Which isn’t bad – I love gratuitous violence in movies – but when combined with the film’s continuous gun fetishization made me uncomfortable. 

Look, I’m not gonna turn into a Tipper Gore over here, but it’s important that we examine our relationship to violence in movies, and that we are mindful of how guns are portrayed in a world where school shootings are biweekly. A revenge movie works when the person getting the revenge is in some way righteous, but when they’re like John Wick in this movie it’s sort of just pornography. 

John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum didn’t make me excited for the next John Wick movie. It got me excited for a young filmmaker to come up who wants to examine violence in the way a Sam Peckinpah did. See, Peckinpah’s Westerns were a reaction to the cleanliness of the violence in mainstream Westerns – people got shot and they fell over and died. Peckinpah had seen death when serving in the armed forces, and he understood how it was more painful and messy than what audiences saw on screen. He brought that to his films, while still creating weird beauty with his violence. 

John Wick‘s violence is messy – people bleed – but it’s still clean. The deaths are meaningless. The violence is so often over-the-top and so often happens in huge waves that we don’t even think about what it means. That’s okay! But the pendulum of the culture always swings, and this movie, combined with the casual violence of superhero films (Tony Stark using a cosmic WMD on his enemies in Endgame), has me truly longing for a swing to a Peckinpah perspective in a mainstream action movie. I know that’s impossible; Peckinpah existed in one of those pockets of time where the craziest shit could happen at studios, but we desperately need a filmmaker to address the violence that we gleefully consume while violence consumes us in the real world. 

This piece ended up being more negative than I expected; I really like the world and action of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, but I think I’m harsh on the movie because I love the first two so much. This is a special franchise, one that merges high end stunt work with very strange world-building (I believe John Wick lives in the world of The Warriors) and seasons it all with real emotion. Fighting franchises never do that, and when the emotion is lost or lessened, the franchise becomes less special. I critique because I love, and because I’m tired of movies that stall for their next installment, that wait to give us the good stuff.

Still, I’ll be back for 4, whatever that ends up being called. And I’ll be rooting for John Wick to discover why he wants to live… or maybe, preferably, to discover what is worth dying for.