By Preston Wilder
Buster Keaton – the great Silent comic known for his witty, fearless stunts – appears briefly at the very start of John Wick 3, glimpsed on a screen in Times Square, as a kind of guiding spirit. That little cameo makes a promise: like Keaton’s masterpieces, this will be a film about bodies in motion, dealing in controlled yet outrageous slapstick – albeit gory and disgusting enough, in this case, to merit an ‘18’ rating. The promise is largely fulfilled, yet something else should also be noted. The longest film Keaton made during his great period in the 1920s was Battling Butler, clocking in at 77 minutes; most were around an hour long. John Wick is two hours 10 minutes.
No need to rant about pop culture becoming more self-indulgent, or the paradox of everything taking longer to consume (this means you, TV shows) even as everyone’s time becomes more precious. Suffice to say that John Wick 3 is glorious for about an hour, then set-piece fatigue sets in, then by the end you just want it to end. It’s often said that the best way to gauge the success of a franchise movie is by the last few seconds, when the next instalment is proffered – and I must admit there was no exhilaration when ‘John Wick 4’ was set up, just before the cut to credits. By that point, just the thought of two more hours of undifferentiated mayhem made me feel exhausted.
Then again, it’s not really undifferentiated. Indeed that’s the most thrilling part of John Wick 3, that it sets up a simple chase plot – John (Keanu Reeves) on the run, declared ‘excommunicado’ after having abused the sanctity of the Continental Hotel by killing a man on its premises – then uses it for endless variations on fight scenes.
One mano-a-mano takes place in a public library, where Wick’s opponent quotes Dante then ends up with his neck propped across the spine of an upturned hardback, so our hero can break it (the neck, not the spine). As implied by that early Buster Keaton glimpse, director Chad Stahelski is himself a former stuntman – and, it seems, something of a film buff. A martial-arts scrap against Asian thugs unfolds in a corridor lined with glass cases full of knives – and Wick breaks the cases then peppers his opponents with the knives, prompting me to flash on the scene in Kung Fu Hustle where Stephen Chow ends up as a kind of human pincushion. (The Chow scene is comic; then again, John Wick is also something of a dark comedy.) Then comes a brief bust-up with Italian Mafiosi taking place in a stable with the horses used, bizarrely, as weapons – and the combo of horses and Mafiosi calls to mind (at least to my mind) that famous horse’s head in The Godfather. Our hero even goes to Casablanca, the ultimate in movie destinations, a place that probably hasn’t played such a prominent role in a Hollywood film since the days of Bogart and Bergman. The only regret for Casablanca fans is perhaps that no-one thought to paraphrase the title of that film’s original play for this one’s tagline: ‘Everybody Comes to Wick’s’.
John Wick 3 looks beautiful, right from the opening images of New York City lights glittering in a rainstorm; but is it Art? “Art is pain,” reckons Anjelica Huston, as a stern ballet teacher who helps John against her better judgment – in which case it surely makes sense to anoint this extremely painful movie as also artistic. The body count is off the charts (“Life is suffering,” adds Ms Huston, and gets stabbed through the hands for her trouble), the callous videogame aesthetic slightly unnerving when applied so relentlessly – then again, as already mentioned, this franchise has always come with a wry edge. The first John Wick, five years ago, had John wiping out entire legions of bad guys because one of them killed his dog.
There’s a philosophy of sorts, even clearer in John Wick 3 than it was in its predecessors: the human capacity for violence is implacable, therefore civilisation – “the rules” – must be equally implacable. The film’s sub-title comes from the Latin phrase ‘Si vis pacem, para bellum’, meaning ‘If you want peace, prepare for war’ – and the franchise teems with such contradictions, whether it’s the one between Wick’s fearsome skills and his chilled, Keanu Reeves quality or the one between the oppressive actions of the ‘High Table’ and its role as the agent of order in a world of chaos. Maybe it takes 130 minutes to tease out the details of such a paradoxical worldview – or maybe it’s just taken up with fight after fight after fight, squandering the early goodwill and turning the film into a big-studio onslaught rather than a Buster Keaton-esque divertissement. John Wick 3 is undoubtedly impressive, but ‘John Wick 4’? Not right now, thank you.
DIRECTED BY Chad Stahelski
STARRING Keanu Reeves, Halle Berry, Ian McShane
US 2019 130 mins