How 'John Wick 3' Scales Back While Pushing Forward

'Parabellum' may be lighter on the mythology and opt to focus on a global, man-on-the-run narrative.

Yeah, we're thinking he's back. Thursday morning, Lionsgate released the trailer for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the subtitle deriving from the Latin phrase "Si vis pacem, para bellum," meaning, "If you want peace, prepare for war." And it's war we shall have. The action film sees Keanu Reeves' titular John Wick on the run for his life after a $14 million bounty is placed on his head following his assassination of a member of the High Table in 2017's John Wick: Chapter 2.

If the buzz from fans on social media is any indication, the third John Wick entry is among the year's most hotly anticipated genre films. The trailer certainly provides enough evidence as to why, set to Andy Williams' "The Impossible Dream (The Quest)." The slick, neon-lit actioner, directed by Chad Stahelski, looks to be pulling out all the stops: dog packs, horses, sword-carrying motorcyclists and Halle Berry, serving as a reminder that for all the bloodshed we've seen, we really haven't seen anything yet. Throughout cinema across the world, we've come across plenty of men with guns seeking revenge or running for their lives. But we've never encountered anything like John Wick.

The success of John Wick as a franchise shouldn't be underplayed, because it was never a sure thing. In an action-movie landscape where superhero movies and sci-fi epics have dominated, the John Wick franchise has become a welcome surprise hit. The first film seemingly came out of nowhere in 2014, and prior to release was often lumped in with the "aging action star comeback" subgenre that Liam Neeson has so successfully managed to own. But John Wick proved to be something more when it was released to rave reviews and made $88.8 million globally on a budget that reportedly ran between $20 million and $29 million. The sequel John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) enjoyed even bigger success, going on to make $171.5 million on a $40 million budget. With Reeves' sensitive portrayal as a hurt man who just wants to live in peace with his dog, stylish action sequences and efficient world building, John Wick has become the modern mid-budget action answer to the lamentation that we no longer have heroes on the scale of Stallone's Marion Cobretti, Schwarzenegger's John Matrix, or Van Damme's Frank Dux, while surpassing them all.

The Wick world-building and allusions to mythology have allowed its character to survive beyond the simple conceit of revenge and launch him into a multimedia franchise that has so far consisted of a comic book series, a VR game and a planned TV series, The Continental. Wick's unique perspective and action set pieces launched the careers of screenwriter Derek Kolstad and stuntmen and stunt coordinators turned directors, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, the latter of whom departed the franchise as a director after the first film and went on to direct Atomic Blonde (2017), Deadpool 2 (2018), and the upcoming Hobbs & Shaw (2019).

But Kolstad and Stahelski haven't let the lack of a co-director dent the Wick franchise at all. The third entry looks like it may scale back slightly on some of the political mythology concerning the High Table that was integral to Chapter 2 and opt for a "man on the run" narrative that sees the master assassin going global and picking up a few strays along the way.

While so many action franchises from Die Hard to Taken has experienced a steady decline, the John Wick series seems to be getting better with each entry. There's of course a scenario in which this third film collapses under the weight of its own ambition, especially with a title that's perhaps one word too many. But going by the trailer, John Wick remains in the best of hands, brutally so. With Kolstad's ability to create mounting tension, Stahelski's kinetic action sequences, cinematographer Dan Laustsen's gorgeous cinematography and Reeves' blend of mystique and vulnerability, John Wick: Chapter 3 may be the most emotionally complex and narratively streamlined film since Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). And as if we needed any more proof that stuntmen and coordinators deserve Oscar nominations, this film should certainly seal the deal.

John Wick is the kind of success story for original properties that so many studios dream of, and while John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum may be closing a trilogy, we doubt the character will be getting away from audiences that easily. Going by Wick's history and passion surrounding the property, Parabellum may be only the conclusion of the first campaign in a much larger war. In the immortal words of villain Viggo Tarasov, whose actions started this whole saga, "Be seeing you, John."

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum opens May 17.

  • Richard Newby