In a cinematic marketplace glutted with throwaway action flicks, the “John Wick” films are something quite unique. They’re memorable and compulsively watchable, and yet it’s hard to say exactly what makes them so distinct. Is it the icy lead performance by the ever-stoic Keanu Reeves? Is it the sleek, rain-drenched, neon-noir set design? Is it the saga’s intricate lore, featuring a global High Table of assassins with detailed rules for conducting “business”?
“Parabellum” picks up minutes after the conclusion of 2017’s “Chapter 2.” After killing a rival on the grounds of the New York Continental—a hotel and neutral zone among assassins—Wick has been named excommunicado, with a $14 million bounty on his head.
As one might expect, “Parabellum” is an onslaught of chaotic action from the very start. Wick demolishes his attackers with books, knives, swords, belts, cars, horses, dogs, and many, many guns. If you have a taste for gorgeously choreographed displays of carnage, “Parabellum” is the film for you.
But as it so happens, this third installment takes the storyline in some unexpected directions. I never thought I’d find myself writing this, but beneath all the blood and bullets, “Parabellum” is a strangely spiritual tale.
It would be very easy for a film like “Parabellum”—featuring a secret global organization seeking to control the protagonist—to hit a series of predictable notes. Surely, one assumes, Wick will overthrow the existing regime and build a new one, a free one. But for the most part, the film avoids this temptation: despite Wick’s conflicts with the Table, the series shies away from casting him as the vanguard of something new. Indeed, Wick’s struggles throughout much of “Parabellum” are efforts to reintegrate himself into the order that his actions have defied—efforts to atone for his misdeeds.
Midway through the film, Wick travels to Casablanca in the hopes of making amends with the Table. In order to do so, he must come face-to-face with “the one who sits above the Table”—an enigmatic Elder who possesses the power to restore Wick’s status. To find the Elder, Wick must travel as far as he can into the distant desert, until his strength utterly gives way; then, and only then, will the Elder appear. Wick’s guide on this odyssey is an enigmatic figure named Sofia (Halle Berry).
This particular imagery is strongly symbolic stuff: Wick’s journey into the desert to commune with “the one who sits above the Table”—the one whose word is absolute law, who oversees the world’s governing powers—closely tracks the sojourns of the Desert Fathers of early Christianity, who left the world behind in order to encounter God. And his guide’s name is surely no coincidence: in the writings of many Eastern Orthodox theologians, including Vladimir Solovyov and Sergey Bulgakov, Sophia is a moniker for God’s divine wisdom.
This reading of the series—as profoundly influenced by elements of Near Eastern spirituality foreign to many Westerners—explains a great deal. Unusually for a thriller film marketed to Western audiences, the “John Wick” series is a decidedly anti-introspective affair. While competitor franchises like “Taken” and “Die Hard” aren’t shy about allowing their protagonists to voice their thoughts and feelings, Wick is a far more taciturn figure. We catch quick glimpses of Wick mourning his late wife, but beyond that, he remains an enigma.
The theological reading of “John Wick” helps explain this: Just as in Orthodox practice, this saga’s characters’ values are not merely professed or penned, but embodied, manifested in action. Wick doesn’t wrestle with “Catholic guilt” or a “Protestant work ethic,” because his universe is Orthodox to the core, oriented toward experiential encounter with a power beyond himself. The meaning and purpose in Wick’s world is thus not something superimposed on the world through his own strength of will, but something already there, something to be discovered. And so we never glimpse Wick’s inner thoughts because we have no need to: his conduct, and his general willingness to submit himself to higher laws, speak for themselves.
Towards the film’s conclusion, Wick confronts an enemy in the middle of Grand Central Station, and the resulting bloodshed goes completely unnoticed by passersby. It is as if Wick and his adversaries are invisible—inhabiting a viscerally real, yet unseen, world just beneath the surface of the ordinary. That moment captures the truly distinctive heart of the franchise—the series’ affirmation of a hidden, transpersonal, “cosmic” order with its own rules and principles, one within which death and sufferings are made comprehensible. And in that world, there is not even a trace of smugness or irony.
Certainly “Parabellum”—like all “John Wick” films—is something of an acquired taste. Those who prefer a slightly tamer breed of action flick will have little use for the film’s deluge of bloodshed. But for those who’ve followed this series since the start, “Chapter 3” will prove more than satisfying—and for newcomers, it’s worth noting that the series continues to double down on its intriguingly unconventional storytelling.
Among Western thriller films, the “John Wick” saga may well be the “least Western” of them all—a vision of premodern action cinema that confounds contemporary expectations. And that, I think, is well worth celebrating.