WARNING: The very premise of this film contains spoilers for the series thus far.
John Wick, the legendary hitman who dreaded by even the top crime lords, has found himself in between a rock and a hard place. He just murdered the newest member of the High Table, Santino d’Antonio, while in the Continental Hotel in New York City. His friend, Winston, has given John an hour before he is officially excommunicated from their society. After this point, he is disallowed from using any of their services. Knowing he is running out of time, John resorts to one last desperate measure.
The original film had the legendary assassin face off against a faction that wasn’t in his league. Although he realistically accumulated many injuries over the course of the film, his victory was practically a forgone conclusion. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not he would win, but how impressive the action sequences would be. In that regard, the film did not disappoint. The second chapter had John Wick fight people who were a little closer to his skill level, making his continued existence a little less predictable. This is because what lacked in skill, they made up for in numbers.
The third chapter of the John Wick saga, on the other hand, has the title character at his most vulnerable. It’s true that, over the course of the first two films, John faced increasingly difficult odds, but both of his conquests had one common factor: the Continental’s assistance. The services the hotel provided were invaluable to the hitman – especially because the narratives went out of their way to prove that, while he fights with the strength of a demon, he is not invincible. Every time he sustained an injury, they didn’t just go away when the plot called for it; he was actually seen getting stitches multiple times – and they were often seen breaking in battle.
The enormity of John’s situation hits home when he searches the New York Public Library. As he recovers a crucifix from a hollowed-out book, he is accosted by an assassin attempting to get the bounty before John’s excommunication is made official. John dispatches the assailant, but not before taking a grievous knife wound. Realizing just what little time he has left, John seeks assistance from one of the Continental-affiliated doctors. Said doctor manages to treat the wound, but not before time runs out and the $14 million bounty is placed on John’s head. From this point onward, John is completely alone; he can neither afford to take any more injuries, nor does he have access to a reliable supply chain.
Just like with its two predecessors, Derek Kolstad prefers to have his audience infer important plot points for themselves in lieu of bombarding them with exposition. Along with the crucifix in the hollowed-out book is a Marker medallion. He takes the crucifix to The Director, a woman he met in his past. The Director reluctantly takes the crucifix as a ticket and ensures John safe passage to Casablanca, Morocco. There, he meets Sofia, a former friend and the owner of the Moroccan Continental, and presents the Marker to her. In a stark contrast to the premise of John Wick: Chapter 2, this time, it’s the title character who is owed the favor. The High Table sought retribution against Sofia’s daughter only for John to shield her from them. Such was the extent of his action that Sofia doesn’t know where John hid her daughter. She can’t afford to learn this information; if she does, his efforts will have been in vain.
The High Table had been mentioned countless times throughout the series before Parabellum, but they are at their most active in this installment. A member who refers to herself as The Adjudicator goes to the Continental to investigate Winston. She and the rest of the High Table found it highly suspicious that Winston would give John an hour-long head start. The original film established that any assassin regardless of rank shall be executed immediately for violating the organization’s sacred rules.
As an antagonist, The Adjudicator provides an interesting contrast with her predecessors. While Iosef was in over his head and Santino proved an inept manipulator, both characters were united in their downright suicidal amount of smugness. The Adjudicator stands out from either of them by being a highly dogmatic individual. This is not a woman who makes exceptions for anything. One gets the feeling that if her own mother had violated the rules, The Adjudicator would dole out her own swift, dispassionate brand of justice without missing a beat. Both The Director and Bowery King, the latter of whom suppled John with a weapon, end up being victims of her rigid ethos. Winston himself has seven days to vacate the premises. If he does not, her assassins will forcibly take it from him.
John’s journey through Morocco leads him to The Elder, an influential member of this society with the ability to forgive his transgressions. The Elder agrees to forgive him, but in exchange, he must return to the United States and assassinate Winston, who refuses to leave his post. Taking another cue from the yakuza, John shows his commitment to The Elder by severing his ring finger along with the wedding band wrapped around it. However, when John arrives at the Continental, he finds he cannot go through with the hit. This is a powerful moment in the film, as it shows that while he was perfectly willing to resort to murder when sufficiently angered, he can’t entertain the idea of killing a friend.
Although I do think Parabellum has its strong points, it did manage to lose me somewhat in the final act. After an intense fight with The Adjudicator’s vanguard, Winston is able to retain control of his hotel. The Adjudicator, unimpressed, negotiates a parley with Winston. Identifying John as a threat to operations, Winston shoots John repeatedly, causing him to fall from the roof. With this gesture, Winston is allowed to keep his power. However, the Adjudicator discovers that John’s body has gone missing. A severely wounded John is transported to the Bowery King, who barely survived the Adjudicator’s sentence. With a mutual hatred of the High Table, John agrees to fight against them.
The ending is a fairly standard sequel hook, but it doesn’t stop Parabellum from feeling anticlimactic. I do like that when John’s body goes missing, Winston doesn’t act surprised. This suggests he either figured John would survive or discreetly orchestrated his meeting with the Bowery King himself. Ultimately, the problem I have with this ending is that I feel the crew attempted to get too much mileage out of their ideas. With both John Wick: Chapter 2 and Parabellum ending with no resolution, it feels as though the overarching story had two second acts. One could argue the original was a prologue while the second chapter started its own three-act story from scratch, but it doesn’t change that Parabellum was just going through the motions of its direct predecessor.
Although Parabellum manages to excel in many of the ways as its two predecessors, I also feel that is to the film’s detriment. John Wick was a great minimalistic story that didn’t linger on its story beats any longer than necessary. Meanwhile, John Wick: Chapter 2 presented a new challenge for the skilled assassin, keeping true to the original film’s strengths. However, I feel that by Parabellum, the minimalistic plot of the series was starting to be stretched a little too thin. Not helping matters is that while the action sequences are as good as ever, they’re a little more difficult to appreciate given we have no shortage of precedents by this point. It’s still worth seeing if you’re invested in the series, but I do feel that if the first two films didn’t grab you, Parabellum will not change your mind.
Final Score: 6/10