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[This story contains spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum]
Poor John Wick can’t catch a break. When he does, the break never lasts. In John Wick (2014), he returns to the criminal underworld he turned his back on when Russian thugs gun down the puppy gifted him by his dead wife years prior; in John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017), his second retirement is interrupted when camorra don Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) cashes in on a blood oath John swore to him ages prior. Now, John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum has John desperately globetrotting to avoid a death sentence handed down from on high. That’s what he gets for breaking the rules.
The John Wick films have played by a set of rules established from the start, sketched out roughly at first but slowly filled in over the years; the rules of the Continental Hotel, for instance, preclude any bloodshed within its bounds, while the blood marker Santino holds over John’s head in Chapter 2 comes with a consumer warning of “honor the oath, else you’ll be sorry.” These rules come with benefits as much as they do consequences, “consequence” being the driving theme of Parabellum. Disobey Continental law and you die; disrespect the blood marker and incur its possessor’s rancor. Both of these laws lead John to his unfortunate present circumstances in Parabellum, putting him at odds with the ruling body presiding over the world of assassins and killers: The High Table.
John, at the end of Chapter 2, breaks the golden rule at the Continental; for his troubles, he is excommunicated and tagged with a worldwide price on his head. So he runs — and runs, and runs, and runs — from the legions of cutthroats out for his blood, and especially the High Table, first mentioned and deployed as a plot driver in Chapter 2. High Table membership doesn’t come easily, but it’s desirable, the kind of prestige worth killing for; nor is it held onto easily, coming with the expectation of utmost fealty to the Table’s cause. Rather than dues, the High Table requires ruthlessness from its representatives, notably the Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon), sent by the High Table to clean up the mess left in John’s wake post-Chapter 2 and hold him accountable for constitutional crimes.
Theoretically, the High Table is a force for what qualifies as “good” in the John Wick franchise’s economy of murder. But this is a series about hit folks, and hit folks tend to handle business at the end of a gun’s barrel or a sword’s blade. Nobody is spared the High Table’s justice; not Winston (Ian McShane), the Continental manager, who gave John an hour head start on flocking assassins at the end of Chapter 2; not the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), who aids John on his mission to get even with Santino; not even the Director (Anjelica Huston), on whom John calls for assistance in Parabellum. Her meager generosity leaves her with a hideout full of butchered henchman and a stab wound through both hands, her penance for aiding and abetting the High Table’s quarry.
What’s an organization that governs hitman society to do? Offer clemency? Respond to misbehavior with a wag of the finger? If killers are your constituents, you’re not going to discipline them by putting them in the corner. You’re going to kill them. If you’re feeling generous, you’re just going to cut them seven times with a katana. The leap from merely hearing about the High Table to seeing the High Table in action is sobering. Admittedly, Dillon does play to the franchise’s self-aware absurdity, while Parabellum writ large is peppered by gags and punchlines; the High Table, at least, is as beholden to John Wick’s sense of humor as its other characters. But the High Table is so stone cold ruthless that it makes the stone cold killers under its purview look downright timid.
The great pleasure of the John Wick films lies in watching Keanu Reeves do what Keanu Reeves does via the high style, impeccable choreography, and slick filmmaking of the series’ architects, Derek Kolstad, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. (Their knack for absolutely phenomenal casting doesn’t hurt, either.) But watching this world expand from John Wick‘s intimate scale to Parabellum‘s grander international scale is a delight, too. Honor among thieves gives way to revenge among thieves, and revenge eventually gives way to deep-rooted systemic allegiances among thieves. The deeper down into the rabbit hole the series burrows, the more detailed and compelling those systems become.
And the larger John Wick‘s world grows, the more indulgent each movie gets to be; the High Table’s presence adds gravity to offset its exaggerations while boosting the stakes. Parabellum ends with a very pissed off John reuniting with an equally pissed off Bowery King, together swearing retribution on the High Table (and, in John’s case, maybe Winston, who apparently betrays him to save his own skin). In each film, John takes on increasingly imposing enemies, and the High Table is the most imposing yet. Their interventions in Parabellum set events into overdrive, a nifty bit of world-building to push the overarching narrative to new heights of spectacle, culminating in series-best fights and ending at the start of a new cycle of over-the-top violence.
Rules are no fun, except when they lead to chaos and body counts. Parabellum‘s body count is nigh-unquantifiable. If that’s the price of a seat at the High Table, it’s a price the film pays gladly.
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