Ever since Liam Neeson put his particular set of skills to exceptionally brutal use back in 2008’s Taken, Hollywood has been on a mission to replicate its golden, liver-spotted touch. Sylvester Stallone gathered together his expendable crew of 80’s and 90’s action legends to varying degrees of success. Even John Travolta got in on the act with From Paris With Love (if you haven’t seen that one…well it’s probably best kept that way).
Many tried and failed to capture the simplistic magic of Neeson’s Brian Mills discovering over the phone that his teenage daughter had been kidnapped by sex traffickers, and then spending the next 70 minutes making good on his promise to ‘look for them, find them and kill them’, in an unflinchingly violent manner. Even two Taken sequels fell way short of the mark.
Maybe breaking bones is a young man’s game? That may have very well been the case, but then someone had to go and kill Keanu Reeves’ puppy. And the game changed, for good, which leads us here, to John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.
But first, let’s address the elephant in the room. Labelling Keanu as ageing may be a bit of a stretch considering his body basically stopped obeying the laws of biological nature pretty much around the same time that he was being reborn into The Matrix. But by the time the John Wick threequel is ready to be added to your Blu–ray collection or streamed straight to your TV, Reeves will be 55, a full 30 years on from making his name as the ‘excellent’ Ted Theodore Logan, one half of the time travelling airheads in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
Also, given the fact that his heyday as an action star was in the 90s (The Matrix, Point Break, Speed, Johnny Mnemonic…OK, but definitely the first three) and that the titular John Wick is in, albeit early, retirement when we first meet him, all of this most definitely cements both the actor and franchise into the realms of ‘ageing’.
So now that the legal part is out of the way, let’s get into the gritty stuff.
How do you usurp a much-loved action film about a highly skilled dad doing anything and everything in his power to rescue his own daughter from kidnappers? You create an even higher skilled, deadlier assassin that has every criminal in the city sleeping with one eye open, and have him use those incredible skills to seek bloody retribution on the hot-headed, arrogant son of a mob boss who took a shine to John Wick’s classic Mustang and decided he would gather a group of friends, break into the hitman’s house, beat him near to death and take the car for himself. Which would have been bad enough had he not decided to kill the barking puppy that John had just begun to bond with. Even worse considering that puppy had been a gift from beyond the grave, from his recently deceased wife, in the hope that the puppy would help keep John focused on the life he had recently created, and stop him from drifting back into the life he had worked so hard to escape from. Rarely have the intentions of a gifted puppy backfired so much.
Co-directed by Chad Stahelski (Keanu Reeves’ stunt double in The Matrix) and David Leitch, John Wick was pretty much the perfect action film. It had its own unique style, a succinct narrative that wastes very little time getting to the point, and yet has something that most over-stylised actioners lack – substance. A lot of this comes from those first few scenes. Reeves, while never going to get anywhere near an Oscars podium, plays these stoic, Terminator-like characters with ease. He also manages something else without ever having to stretch himself – sadness. Maybe in part to his own personal tragedies, Reeves really makes you feel John Wick’s loss at the beginning of the film. Not only has he lost the love of his life, but he has also lost his one glimmer of redemption, his chance at a normal life. Then comes the puppy, with a few genuinely funny bonding scenes, cruelly leaving you exposed for what is to follow. The gangsters break in, the puppy is killed and John Wick (labelled as The Boogie Man by the shady inhabitants of the underworld) is unleashed. In a flurry of balletic ‘gun-fu’, bad guys are dispatched in excessively violent ways, as a bloodied and bruised, but ultimately triumphant John limps of into the night with a newly rescued K-9 sidekick by his side.
The second instalment in the franchise did something quite shocking – it managed to improve on the original whilst also massively expanding the mythology of the world John Wick operates in. The once again retired assassin is once again drawn out of retirement when a blood debt he made to the assassins guild, The High Table is called in. One high ranking member wants his own sister eliminated and John Wick is the only man capable of getting near enough to do it. When Wick refuses, his house is subsequently blown to smithereens leaving him and his poor dog homeless. So he has no choice but to carry out the hit, resulting in some stunningly captured action sequences, and in particular one of the most ingenious fight scenes in recent memory (involving rapper-turned-actor Common no less). Once the hit is complete, Wick is back to doing what he does best…on the hunt for retribution, targeting those who destroyed his home, knowing that if he doesn’t he will never truly be free.
Unfortunately for John, this also means committing the ultimate assassin’s sin and spilling blood within the sacred walls of the hitman haven The Continental Hotel. Having done so, Wick finds himself reluctantly declared excommunicado by the manager of The Continental, Winston (Ian McShane), with a $14 million bounty placed on his head. Given one hour by Winston to get as far away as possible, Wick now finds himself and his dog on the run from every hitman and hitwoman in the world. With nowhere to hide, it will only be a matter of time before he decides to stop running and instead fight back. And, as Winston says, with John Wick versus just about every contract killer on the planet, this time the odds are just about even.
The combination of Reeves’ abilities in a fight scene, every move full of precision like that of a dancer, but still managing to pack one hell of a punch, combined with Stahelski and Leitch’s eye for stylised choreography (the latter leaving directing duties to Stahelski for the sequels, having moved onto Deadpool 2) that keeps the story zipping along at breakneck pace, all the while expanding a universe full of interesting characters make this one of, if not the greatest, action franchises, ageing or otherwise, to have ever graced the big screen. And with the seemingly immortal Keanu Reeves in the driver’s seat, long may it continue. Dog lovers rejoice.
What is your favourite action franchise? Let us know what you think over on our Instagram page.
John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum is in cinemas now.