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Movie Review: “John Wick: Chapter 3—Parabellum”

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.


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Posted by on May 19, 2019 in Thrillers


Movie Review: “Us”

“Us”—Jordan Peele’s follow-up to his 2017 hit “Get Out”—is that rarest of things: a genuinely original horror movie. The nuances of its themes might elude some of its viewers, but taken on its own terms, it’s a remarkably thought-provoking (and occasionally thrilling) experience.

In 1986, a little girl wanders into a mirror maze on the Santa Cruz beachfront boardwalk. What she discovers within traumatizes her for years. Fast forward to the present day, where that little girl—Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o)—is now a wife and mother of two. Their family vacation soon takes a dark turn when duplicate versions of themselves, clad in red jumpsuits and wielding razor-sharp scissors, mysteriously appear in the driveway of their vacation home.

What follows is a blend of home-invasion thriller and apocalypse drama. We soon learn that all across the nation, the same phenomenon is occurring: red-suited clones are remorselessly massacring their doubles. It turns out that this was the horror Adelaide beheld so many years ago. In the mirror maze, she met her double for the first time, the first glimpse of a coming American reckoning.

(Some spoilers follow)

We eventually learn that the strange doppelgangers are the “Tethered”—products of a government program designed to see whether one soul could subsist in two different bodies. After decades of imprisonment in underground tunnels crisscrossing the United States, they have finally rallied and burst forth into the surface world. But their ultimate goals are mysterious: after reaching the surface and killing off a fair number of non-Tethered Americans, the Tethered link their hands to form a human chain extending across the entire country.—aping an old advertisement for a “Hands Across America” charitable event. It’s a striking image that (to his credit) Peele never really explains onscreen. And it powerfully illustrates one of the movie’s core themes.

Where “Get Out” centered on race, “Us” probes the anxieties of social class. In particular, the film derives its fearsomeness from a deep-seated neurosis of the American “elite”: the fear that the Rightfully Deserving Ones will be replaced or otherwise supplanted by those who are “unworthy.” The Tethered might look like “real people,” but their clumsiness and unsophisticated speech immediately betray their humbler origins.

This reading is cemented by the image of the Tethered joining their hands in one line. From the viewer’s perspective, their behavior reflects a strange, seemingly bizarre, even anachronistichope in something greater than the individual self.  That sort of schmaltzy charity campaign, we tell ourselves, is so 1980s. We’re beyond that now. And in entertaining that thought, however fleetingly, we’re driven to confront the apparent inexplicability (for cosmopolitan sorts) of communal ways of being, of traditions and practices that can’t be justified in consumption-oriented terms. Those collective practices and memories, Peele suggests, are a fundamental part of what it means to be American—despite our best efforts to occlude or forget them.

As a result, the message of “Us” is certainly political, but in a party-transcendent sort of way. Right-wing indifference to the plight of the common man, Peele implies, is mirrored by cosmopolitan liberals’ self-satisfied consumerism. Neither group truly cares or understands about those deemed “less than.”

As a statement, “Us” packs a powerful punch; as a horror movie, it is rather less successful. For one thing, the film never conjures up as much fear as it really should. From the beginning, the Tethered come off as misunderstood far more than menacing—an understandable choice given the film’s themes, but one that undoubtedly drains the tension out of their first appearance. Additionally, with the exception of one ten-minute stretch in the middle of the film, “Us” lacks any particularly memorable cinematic mayhem. There are a few intermittently energetic set pieces, but there’s much more downtime here than there should be in any film labeled as a “thriller.”

That’s certainly not to say the movie lacks cinematic merit. In particular, Nyong’o’s performance (as both her “real” self and her doppelganger) is phenomenal, and the film is beautifully shot and choreographed. On a technical level, “Us” is a great success. But I’d be lying if I said it came anywhere close to “the best horror film of all time”—which it’s currently being billed as.

Leaving the theater, I overheard a boy in his late teens ask his friend, “Was that supposed to be, like, symbolic or something?” Alas, the audience for “cerebral sociopolitical drama, in the trappings of a horror thriller, with more blood than usual” may be fairly small—which would explain the currently widening disparity between critical and audience sentiments on Rotten Tomatoes. I doubt the word-of-mouth for this film will be particularly strong.

Perhaps any problem along those lines is really with us, the audience, and not with “Us.” It’s certainly a good movie—just not the one I was expecting. Maybe this premise would’ve worked better as an art film, a metaphysical drama, or something else other than an erstwhile slasher flick.

One thing’s for sure, though: “Us” is something genuinely different in a marketplace besotted with sequels, franchises, and cinematic universes. And that ingenuity is worth celebrating.

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Posted by on March 25, 2019 in Thrillers

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