From the first bullet fired, the John Wick films have proudly worn their influences on their sleeves — from the elegant bloodshed of John Woo’s The Killer to the work of Jean-Pierre Melville and John Boorman — in their exploration of a bizarre criminal underworld colored with various codes and overt Catholicism. Director Chad Stahelski is a student of stunts and action movie history, and seems to use his films as love letters to the camerawork and performers who make the unreal real.
With the release of John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum, the films’ connection with international action cinema has only gotten more integral. More so than the other John Wick movies, Parabellum is packed with attempts to one-up action films from around the world. Alongside the gun-fu that we’ve come to expect from the series, there are direct visual homages to numerous landmarks of action cinema history.
[Ed. note: The following contains mild spoilers for John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum.]
The first instance of Chapter 3’s violent homages happens not long after the opening credits finish rolling. The film’s initial half hour threads together increasingly absurd set-pieces as Wick frantically battles his way out of New York City following his “excommunicado” status. It’s hard not to think of Jason Bourne’s grim ingenuity when Wick kills Boban Marjanović with a library book.
A more deliberate, outlandish visual reference comes as Wick escapes a mob of assassins by riding a horse through the city streets à la James Cameron’s outrageous action satire True Lies. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Harry Tasker took things a little further than Wick by riding the horse in an elevator and off the top of a shopping mall. While Parabellum doesn’t quite go that far, it matches that film’s imagery of action heroes as cowboys running up against modern times (and mostly succeeding). Notably, Wick also dispatches one killer with an antique revolver, following a visual reference to Tuco assembling a revolver in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
While the second act is relatively quieter, the final act of Parabellum is a smorgasbord of reimagined action sequences. A motorcycle sword fight recalls — or perhaps gushes over — Jung Byung-gil’s 2017 action film The Villainess, framing the action from a similar angle as the camera swoops low in front of the bikes. Part of a loving game of one-upmanship, the chase takes things a little further as John Wick wields a pistol and a sword against his assailants.
In one of the film’s best fights, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman from The Raid films jump into the fray, showing off their brutal speed in comparison to Wick’s slower MMA- and Krav Maga-inspired grappling. The use of karambits (curved knives), and the two-on-one nature of the fight, recalls both Ruhian’s climactic fight as Mad Dog in The Raid as well as the final fight of The Raid 2. It plays like the Shanghai fight in Skyfall, shadowy figures fighting among neon lights and a kaleidoscope of glass — only here, the assassins are fighting using pencak silat.
Later, a fight between Wick and Zero (Mark Dacascos) contains a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual reference to Jackie Chan’s Police Story where Wick slams Zero’s face into a glass cabinet, the camera observing the moment from behind the pane. Of course, in keeping with the film’s desire to escalate absolutely everything to the point of absurdity, the fight scene sees Wick thrown through every glass cabinet in the set, as if to challenge the record levels of defenestration in the final act of Chan’s film.
John Wick: Chapter 3’s homages go beyond action. Laurence Fishburne’s Bowery King and his rooftop birdcages seem to be a visual nod to Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a similarly offbeat take on assassins and codes of honor. John Wick himself is an amalgamation of various iconic figures from action cinema history, matching the gruff delivery of Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin types with the loneliness and desperation of Cha Tae-sik, Won Bin’s character from The Man from Nowhere. This Korean action film is a particularly strong influence on the John Wick series, centered on a similarly melancholic black-suited ex-assassin who brings unholy vengeance on the gang that dared to take his last human connection from him.
Despite Reeves’ vengeful and monosyllabic performance, the Wick films are never humorless; they’re conducted by someone who’s clearly watched their fair share of Buster Keaton. The set-pieces are often punctuated with absurd, borderline slapstick humor, with an early knife fight rivaling the one from The Man from Nowhere (above), taking place in what can only really be called a knife museum. The group of assassins Wick faces here includes Tiger Chen, a veteran fight choreographer of The Matrix and the lead of Reeves’ directorial debut Man of Tai Chi (in which Reeves played the villain). The film’s other hand-to-hand fight scenes match the blend of physicality and comic timing that brought Jackie Chan to fame. It’s the performer’s bodies that tell the jokes, instead of throwaway quips. One of Parabellum’s funniest moments occurs in a brief pause, when Wick and two henchmen come face to face, and simultaneously realize that they all need to reload.
As violent and grim as they may be, the John Wick films are without the cynicism that can plague populist films and views toward them, which are often hand-waved away as “brainless.” Stahelski’s well-documented love of ballet translates into a desire to put the same effort into action filmmaking. Keanu Reeves blowing away armored minions scored to an electro cover of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons (Winter)” may be silly, but that doesn’t mean that the craft is not smart or considered. Stahelski references the history of cinema, Greek myth, religion, and dance while placing explicit focus on real physical performances and all their nuances. Through action, he dares other directors to match a new American benchmark, and delights in doing so.
Kambole Campbell is a writer whose work appears on Little White Lies, Birth Movies Death, SciFi Now and Vague Visages.