The one impressive action-movie idea of recent times—the John Wick franchise starring Keanu Reeves—is drawing to a conclusion with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, in theaters this weekend. The action is the best the series has yet offered, Keanu is finally himself in his role, and the series introduces a number of delightful secondary actors, like the great Angelica Huston, to add histrionic charm to the plot beats. In short, it’s going to be the franchise’s biggest success yet.
“Parabellum” means prepare for war. It’s also the name of a popular 9mm round. This aptly summarizes the attraction of the franchise—it speaks to warlike passions and offers the spectacle of technological combat. If it reminds people of The Matrix, but improved, that’s because director Chad Stahelski was martial arts stunt coordinator on the Matrix movies, and Keanu’s stunt double.
The success of the film depends on one simple idea, which is its principal cinematic attraction: Keanu Reeves mixing close-quarters fighting with various guns, but principally handguns. There is a certain gracefulness to the action choreography, but a lot of people are killed, and part of the appeal of the franchise is simply the way in which antagonists are stopped from, well, antagonizing Wick. As artful as the killing is, the moral implications of loss of life matter; this story is about faith versus fate, grace versus brutality, redemption or damnation, Christian versus pagan politics.
Keanu is an ideal to which we can all aspire; he looks young at 55, soulful, but deadly. Unlike the previous John Wick movies, this one follows the pattern of a computer game—and it is rare nowadays for cinematic action to be able to compete with computer games.
What makes the John Wick movies rare is their confidence. These are cheap movies to make—the trilogy cost less than just about any item in the Marvel catalog, and they do not make much money, though they are solidly profitable. Instead of trying to adapt to the changes in Hollywood, these movies focus on putting a lot of craft behind one character, the assassin John Wick. There is a future in this sort of genre movie-making, especially for people willing to learn from success.
It is not merely the elements of film noir, nor the pacing of action and dialogue—it’s primarily the moral core of the story that matters. How men deal with grief and why there is violence in their nature has been the question in stories about war since Homer’s “Iliad,” and it’s not likely ever to stop mattering.
The John Wick trilogy is really about the problem of modernity. We’re all modern people, peaceable believers in technology and institutions. But we also suspect that behind the official world that directs our lives there is another, secret world, where powerful and dangerous people wield untold powers. They are like pre-modern aristocrats—not like we modern democrats. This is why we’re given to conspiracy theories and it is also why we suspect that great accumulations of power, money, or influence are threats to our way of life.
John Wick is here to prove us right. He’s somewhat old-fashioned himself; he drives an old Mustang. New things aren’t always better. In Parabellum we learn more about his ties to the old world symbolized by the assassins and their creed: art is pain. This is why people are attracted to a discipline that deals with suffering, and fearlessness in face of death.
The story combines both our suspicion that institutions and technology are not enough by themselves and our admiration for fearless men; the result is a dark world where murder is the rule. The assassins are strong where we are weak, but at the same time, this is a forbidding world. This is because of guilt.
Guilt is the Christian sensibility at the core of the John Wick movies. If John Wick had not felt at some level guilty for his wife’s natural death, he would not have gone crazy and returned to the world of assassins. His desire for revenge was also a desire to show that he is not powerless in face of necessity—that however he mourns his wife, he does not fear death. This revealed the other part of guilt—John Wick did not believe he could overcome his past. Without faith, how could he?
The second movie made this much more obvious by completely discarding the possibility of a normal modern life. We started with Wick in Rome. He had a blood debt to repay to Roman aristocrats, which even as a concept is alien to our modern world. Once there, he had to destroy the corrupt aristocrats, who remind us of pre-Christian Rome, right down to the suicide by bleeding in a bathtub.
It’s natural therefore for the final installment in the trilogy to orchestrate an open conflict between the ancient and modern worlds. The story is about who controls men. In the ancient world, men were honored, but only so long as they killed for their cities or empires. In the modern world, such men are not honored, but they can live in anonymity. John Wick has to ask himself what he craves more: does he want his martial excellence to be properly honored and rewarded? Or does he want to be left alone? Another way of asking this is—is he fated to obey blood debts, or does he have a choice?
All action movies are essentially about the question of justice—when is it necessary to become angry and violent? What is the price we pay for believing we deserve rights and have the dignity to oppose necessity or suffering? Such stories proclaim human freedom from the point of view of manliness. This is why we admire them—we don’t just enjoy the spectacle, we actually admire the character, since there is an important truth concealed in the story. The success of John Wick shows that men still crave stories that are honest about suffering and anger, but which also put violence in service of Justice.
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