Stahelski: John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum (2019)
Not only is John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum a terrific addition to the John Wick franchise, but it’s the best and most beautiful action film since Mission Impossible: Fallout. The franchise has come full circle since the first film, completely eschewing the metallic tones and textures of John Wick in favour of a neon, fluorescent, dayglo palette that often seems to be aiming for the same lurid look as sandbox gaming, suffused with colours so bright and vivid that they almost defy real life. Whereas the first film took place in a radically denuded New York, and the second film immersed us in an amorphous global network, Parabellum sees New York start to reassert its local identity against the planetary sweep of the High Table, the underground society that sustains and depends upon the economy that all the characters inhabit. Parabellum is also purer and cleaner than the previous two films, effectively playing as a sustained chase in which John Wick tries to outwit the High Table, and the Continental Hotel as its New York representative, following the price that was put on his head at the end of the second film. As if to set itself against the perky humorlessness of the Marvel universe, Parabellum almost entirely dispenses with one-liners in favour of a more subdued absurdity in which most of the dialogue consists of people chewing John Wick’s name around in their mouth, or chewing the scene with John Wick’s name, which recurs in ever more vivid ways.
For all those reasons, Parabellum also provides the most succinct version of the John Wick world to date, outlining the High Table as a hierarchy that is designed to withstand, survive and even collapse the digital economy as we currently know it. In order to remove the bounty on his head, John Wick is forced to delve into the upper echelons of the High Table more than ever before, revealing a feudal world subsisting beneath democratic capitalism and the demands of the free market. As representatives of the High Table continually pledge their “fealty” to one another – the one word spoken as often as Wick’s own name – Chad Stahelski evokes an entire realm of arcane knowledge, and secret flows of power, largely driven by older men and women who have accumulated wealth over many years and generations, and who still live in a world sustained by secret nods and handshakes. This kind of embodied privilege is inimical, by nature, to digital transparency, and depends instead on processes of analog exchange, from the old-fashioned telephones that are used to monitor the High Table’s assets around the globe, to the carrier pigeons used by the “Bowery,” a communications expert played by Laurence Fishburne who lives under the Brooklyn Bridge.
While the film may have a slick digital sheen, it also falls back upon the analog dimensions of cinema as the best vehicle for evoking this feudal and arcane world. More than the previous two films combined, Parabellum brims with a classical cinematic potentiality that lies just beneath its airbrushed surface, from the opening imagery of Buster Keaton that is superimposed over a digitally enhanced Times Square, to the Tarkovsky Theatre where John Wick flees after his first hour of immunity has expired. Stahelski also expands the cast considerably in this instalment, bringing in a much broader range of actors, from Halle Berry to Anjelica Huston, who insist upon a more traditional cinematic charisma alongside Keanu Reeves’ trademark blankness, which was the main point of focus in the first two films. In their interviews around Avengers: Endgame, the Russo brothers namechecked Antonioni as one of their points of inspiration for the biggest blockbuster in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date. Yet Parabellum is much more of an object lesson in how to blend cinematic heritage with post-cinematic action spectacle, even or especially as Stahelski’s approach never draws auteurist or avant-garde attention to itself in any real way.
This association of classical cinema and the arcane analog economies of the High Table crystallises in the second act, which shifts the action to Casablanca as a site of privileged analog and cinematic exchange. Of all the objects that are exchanged by members of the High Table, the most fascinating and fetishised are the enormous coins that ensure entry and exit from the High Table’s protected spaces. Halfway between tokens and money, these coins reflect a feudal system that is still invested in money as a physical objects, and as a placeholder for deeper fealties and ties, with one member observing that “the coin, of course, doesn’t represent monetary value – it represents a commerce of relationship.” Even the gold of these coins pales in value in comparison to the handshakes and nods that crystallise around them, and most of the franchise is driven by the pivotal moments at which the coins change hands, or are placed, defiantly, on a table, between two different parties. Appropriately, these coins are forged and distributed in a castle in Casablanca, which is where the whole system of analog and cinematic exchange that drives the film is generated. Only by travelling to Casablanca, and witnessing the first coin ever minted for the High Table, can John Wick hope to achieve access to the “one who sits above the Table.”
Part of the challenge for Stahelski is to main this sense of the analog, arcane materiality of the High Table while using digital technology to represent John Wick’s resistance to it. As in the first film, doggos are the first point of resistance, since it’s only with the introduction of a new batch of doggos, helmed by Halle Berry’s character Sofia, that John Wick is able to make some headway in the Casablanca castle. Like cute cats, doggos represent exactly the analog-digital cusp that the film is trying to inhabit, since their fascination as an object of online exchange comes from their promise of a warmth and domesticity that is unfulfilled by the normal affective performance of human relationships that plays out in the digital sphere. While the scene with John Wick, Sofia and her doggos is one of the most digitally animated action sequences in the film (at least up to this point), it also intensifies the cinematic duration, and the long silences and pauses, that constellate around the arcane curios and analog fixtures of the High Tables, bringing John Wick closer to subverting them.
More pervasively, Stahelski situates the film in a refractive space in which images shift between analog and digital coordinates but refuse to settle into one or the other. When criticised by a High Table representative for his dependence on carrier pigeons, the Bowery simply responds that “you see rats with wings, but I see the internet.” Similarly, Stahelski revels in refracted lights, prismatic spaces and glassy surfaces that render all of his images intensively physical and ethereal at the same time, especially during the film’s spectacular action sequences. The scene is set during the first sustained standoff, which sees John Wick pursued through a chandelier store, then a hall of mirrors, than a room full of dusty cabinets, before he is forced to confront his pursuers in a dead end that summarises and intensifies all of these backdrops – a corridor of cabinets with a panoply of chandeliers suspended precariously at the end. Most of the action in the film involves dodging glass, or throwing people into glass, while the shattering of glass splits the difference between disembodied digital complexity and the analog materiality of bodies hitting brutal surfaces. In the first two films, the action was driven by manual dexterity, the toggling skills of the gamer, and John Wick’s aptitude as a first-person shooter, but here the focus shifts more towards the martial arts – and the capacity of the martial arts to orchestrate situations that are at once embodied and disembodied, refracting physical and ethereal forms of violence.
Watching John Wick move through these refracted spaces is like watching the gradual devolution of his capitalist world into feudalism, and then theocracy – or the revelation that our capitalist world is still founded upon these substructures. In order to arrive at the “one who sits above the High Table,” John Wick is told to “go to the edge of the desert and look up,” resulting in a sequence that both doubles down on, and totally departs from, the palette and address of the original two films. By night, the Sahara refines the blue-grey style of the first film, but by day it exudes all the Technicolor brightness that makes Parabellum so unique. As this third film gradually dissociates itself from the first two, while also continuing their message and vision, John Wick finally arrives at the “one,” a Prince who lives in the desert, and demands fealty from all of those who work in the capitalist system that he has orchestrated beneath him. Like Game of Thrones, this sequence evokes an incipient post-democratic future that is already well at work in our world, and deeply embedded in our world, even if it takes an arcane and analog lens to properly glimpse it. Anchored in reservoirs of desert capital, this post-democratic future isn’t opposed to the Middle East, nor accommodating of the Middle East, but intimately intertwined with the Middle East in ways that are inextricable from this democratic-feudal system in its totality.
This meeting sets up the last third of the film, as the “one” informs John Wick that the only way to escape the bounty on his head is to kill Winston, played by Ian McShane, for providing him with the one hour immunity that allowed him to make his way to the desert in the first place. Meanwhile, back in New York, the Continental is deconsecrated by the Adjudicator of the High Table, played by Asia Kate Dillon, meaning that business can now take place there and – more importantly – the High Table can punish both John Wick and Winston there. Within the High Table, consecration is the highest possible privilege, signalling a space that is free from the demands of capitalism, and that instead reverts to the feudalism and theocracy – the ethic of fealty – that subtends the organisation as a whole. By banding up to resist the High Table, and reinstate the Continental as a consecrated space, Winston and John Wick attempt to beat the High Table at its own game.
This resistance depends, in part, on John Wick’s resilience as an assassin, and newly-found skill as a martial arts expert, which comes into the fore over the film’s superb closing sequence, in which he takes on a series of trained hitmen launched by the High Table into the bowels of the Continental. However, John Wick’s resilience depends, in turn, upon the aesthetic centrepiece of the film – a giant prismatic glass structure that is erected on top of the Continental, and which is where Winston conducts his most important business. This multi-story structure apparently cost several million dollars to construct, and is a work of art in and of itself, absorbing the entire substance of the film into its infinitely overlapping planes of space. As a crystallization of all the refractive spaces that have percolated through Parabellum, this prism is both unthinkably ethereal and brutally material, as John Wick discovers when he tries to engage with the elusive martial arts experts who seem somehow capable of disappearing into the glass reflections at a moment’s notice, but also forcing him to take the brutal and bloody brunt of the glass, whether by slamming him into one pane after another, or by mocking him from behind bulletproof sheets as his normal gunplay falls short, and he is forced to rely almost entirely on martial arts in order to get the action done.
During the final scenes in this space, the tinkling of glass is fused with the chinking of the coins that drive the High Table. Abstracted from New York but also embedded in New York, this enormous prism suspends us in the refractive space between analog and digital, and between feudalism and capitalism that drives the narrative, which of course also means that we are suspended in the space between cinema as a repository of arcane knowledge and Stahelski and John Wick’s simultaneous yearning for something outside or beyond cinema. Like a post-cinematic update on The Lady from Shanghai – and driven by the same futuristic orientalism – Stahelski outlines a space in which the boundaries of the cinematic screen, and of cinematic experience, are continually pulsing, morphing and reforming. The only real décor present in this prism, and the only real fixtures apart from glass, are a series of screens that depict a standing wave, then a giant timepiece, and then a map of the globe, as John Wick moves closer towards his goal. Yet these screens are never extricable from the prism around them, which makes it impossible to determine how many there are, where they are situated, or the direction they are facing, even as their frames are discernible, and discernibly cinematic, at any one point in time. In that ebb and flow, and that give and take, lies the film’s restlessness for something that seems impossible in the world of the High Table – as impossible as John Wick surviving this sublime final scene to set up the next film – along with the most beautiful, conceptual and futuristic instalment in the franchise so far.
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