PARABELLUM, PARADISE, OR PARASITE
By David Hackbridge Johnson
The synopsis is: lots of people die in John Wick III. Death is above the title and above the stars. Slicings, garrottings, axes in the back, machine-gunnings, knifings, neck snaps, grenadings, rocket launchings, maulings by Rottweilers. Comic book deaths in droves. Cascades of the hewn and mown. The anonymity of death you might think. In the main we don’t see faces grimacing. Masks, veils, helmets, preserve the indignity of having facial characteristics. Even so, aren’t all the deaths coded in some way? As cannon fodder for sure. The lack of faces helps this notion. We do see the faces of the Chinatown gangsters dispatched in an antique weapons museum near the start of the film – all sorts of axes and knives meet their targets. This is one of the most stylish scenes; star Keanu Reeves at his heavy-breathing best. But we never see the face of a dead person again unless it is a main character meeting their end in a culminating scene of the drama. What faces are behind the masks?
The central tableau of carnage in Chad Stahelski’s action romp, to which I must give a guarded welcome if only on grounds of the sheer energy it packs, takes place in Morocco, where John Wick (Keanu Reeves), Sofia (Halle Berry), and her attack dogs, take on over a hundred henchmen of cardboard cut-out villain Berrada (Jerome Flynn). All are dispatched, mainly by head shots, although the dogs provide welcome variety by delivering castration to those foolish enough to get in their way. You see bloody crotches – but no actual gored genitals in drooling canine mouths – a missed opportunity one feels. The mind-numbing repetition of slaughter will get thumbs twitching on invisible consoles – for it is clear that we are no longer in a film but locked into a duel-to-the-death with an endless computer game. The spurts of blood from necks and the cartoon catapults of the spectacularly shot are familiar from such entertainments. But all those sinister looking people dressed in weird costumes. They look like foreigners to me. Here is where gaming meets xenophobia. All foreigners must be coded in this anonymous way as inhuman; drones indistinguishable from each other but distinguishable en bloc. Expendable ‘towel-headed Arabs’. In the final festive sequence of gore in the Continental Hotel – scenes which even weary Ian McShane as the hotel’s manager can’t lift into any sense of Valhalla-esque camp, the operatives sent in to kill John Wick are also coded as evil and ‘other’. They only miss Darth Vader to lead them, since otherwise they are near-fits for Death Star Stormtroopers. So we don’t see their faces either. We can assume nothing about their ethnicity but they are nevertheless coded as foreign. Therefore killing them all, in exchange for a few scratches on John’s body, is the desideratum of the film – its motivating force. One might argue that by anonymising individuality, a free pass might be given to claims that the film contains racist undertones. I wouldn’t wish to attribute anyone involved in the film with that abhorrent epithet, yet I found the experience of watching John Wick III ultimately rather repulsive. The message was one of unadulterated fear and contempt of other races, fear which seeds violence as the only response. The plot is merely an excuse for the grimmest and most decadent forms of hatred towards people with funny accents and weird clothes. And all done to brilliant effect.
As an antidote to this xenophobe’s wet dream we get a pitiful attempt to ennoble John with Belarusian traits – is that what is going on? Forgive me – it is hard to know. In a scene with some real feel for style, we get Angelica Huston as strict ballet mistress, The Director, schooling her willow-limbed charges with fake-Soviet ruthlessness. It is a relief to hear brief snatches of Tchaikovsky – a balm amid a soundtrack infected with the usual inane tattoo of thumping synth-drums. I wonder what Belarusians make of it. The deals done in blood. The ludicrous apostrophe of John’s revealing of his true allegiance. Needless to say there seems no purpose to this interlude; I am afraid it didn’t make any sense at all, other than as a clumsy, even insulting trope of ethnic ‘belonging’.
The erasure of different peoples continues apace. After a while, repulsion changes to utter boredom. The outcome of these battles is a foregone conclusion; we know from the start that John Wick will defeat all before him – it matters not if he faces one or a thousand enemies, they will all meet their doom with a shrug of Keanu Reeves’ tired shoulders. Do people really cheer in the cinema when this number of ‘black-hats’ get wacked? Or are they numbed into a coma – popcorn balanced on frozen lips, fizzy drinks pooling in their laps?
Many other things bore. The plot. What does anything mean or matter? Oh! but I haven’t watched the first two films! I am not convinced that in doing so I will find any reason for the ludicrous displays of mass extermination. Those cool-looking coins that get pushed knowingly across the counters of hotel reception desks? A receptionist called Charon? Ah. Something about a dog? Is that it? Something mythological to be teased? But these hints are not followed up. I was intrigued momentarily by the tattooed steam-punk typists but I didn’t care enough to find out what they typed and why; something no doubt made clear in either John Wick I or John Wick II. Oh! you haven’t seen those? The script writers, such as they are, have self-lobotomised to produce a series of barrel–scraping clichés, delivered with flat dependability by the likes of such fine actors as Asia Kate Dillon who surpasses most measures of preposterousness in their role as The Adjudicator of whatever nonsense is being adjudicated – no, it doesn’t matter – nothing does in this trip to Bafflesville; as Halle Berry the assassin with dogs (they are thankfully fitted with ballistic vests); and as Keanu Reeves himself, the star, strolling through his monosyllabic ‘lines’ with about as much interest as if he were checking a shopping list before the vegetable counter at Lidl – ‘carrots, parsnips, potatoes, peas’ – actually yes, that is already more expressive of something, even in a Reevesian deadpan.
The splendid Laurence Fishburne can’t raise his role as the Bowery King to anything like the level of Isaac Hayes as The Duke in Escape from New York – although this might have been fixed had director Chad Stahelski accessorised the character in a way to rival Hayes’ chandelier-festooned Cadillac. Fishburne handles his racing pigeons as lovingly as Brendan Gleeson playing Irish folk-hero/criminal Martin Cahill in The General, or, as Kenneth Mars as the washed-up Nazi, Franz Liebkind in The Producers; ‘not many people knew it, but ze Führer vos a terrific dancer’. Yes – I get these references and applaud them in a way – but they are rather lame compared to their originals; one gets the impression that the film lurches forward on a series of over-budget homages to better-made scenes from earlier films. Call it meta-film if it helps to elevate the attempts. Fishburne survives seven cuts of a nasty looking sword in order to have a completely incomprehensible scene with half-dead John Wick near the end of the film. Big hitters of Hollywood battling a dead script in the re-consecrated sewers of The Third Man.
What also palls about this display of cinematic art is the utter humourlessness of it all. Did I miss the jokes? I’ve tried to find the droll delivery of Clint Eastwood, the Amer-Austrian one-liners of Arnold Schwarzenegger, even the knowing grunt of Sylvester Stallone. Nothing. The actors look bored. John Wick himself is a cypher for boredom. A fulcrum through which all boredom passes. If the film wasn’t so noisy one could nod off and dream of tame Rottweilers and holidays in Casablanca without grenade launchers.
In all other respects the film is brilliant: fast, virtuosic, action-sequenced to superb levels; Stahelski manages the resources of his small army of fighters with aplomb. A dizzying display of pyrotechnic film-making. There is even a mirror room fight scene to rival if not match that which ends Robert Clouse’s Enter the Dragon. The crucial difference is one which makes John Wick III a gripping adrenaline rush and Enter the Dragon a knuckle-whitening masterpiece. Violence in Kung Fu films? Of course. And in a film that in many ways is a tribute to past Kung Fu classics (although Reeves is a somewhat leaden dancer of the moves) one tries to look for links across the decades, especially in this well-achieved set piece: Wick versus Zero in the mirror-room. Essential to the plots of the best Kung Fu movies is the way that an inherently peace-loving person (albeit possessed with the lethal weapons of his or her art) is brought to despair by the attacks to loved ones. It is only after atrocity that the dish of revenge can be served, cold or otherwise. Examine the self when watching the best Kung Fu films – physiologically and emotionally. Isn’t there an appalling tension that ratchets up, until the moment when all hope of compromise is vanquished at the murder of a father, daughter, sister, old Kung Fu master? Then the very veins on Bruce Lee’s, or David Chiang’s arms bulge with despair and rage. This is what John Wick III lacks. At no point are we presented with a thread of resistance to revenge, that finally snaps. The paste-board hero and his would-be assassins utterly lack motivation. Even plausible cause is lacking. I understand the 14 million dollar bounty on Wick; something to do with unsanctioned killing – a mythological theme there for sure, but so ploddingly laid out as to barely register before frothing villains hurl themselves into the fray once more. Furthermore, the deaths of hundreds are cost-free; there is no regret. Bruce Lee’s realisation that he must act in ways ever more brutal simply to stop the evil that feeds on society, is of no solace to him; it is his second level of despair. In the final spine-chilling fight scene of Enter the Dragon between the Bruce Lee and Shih Kien characters, the mirrors multiply this evil and Lee must destroy all its copies – remember how he smashes all the mirrors with hand and foot before sending Shih Kien onto the fatal spear. In John Wick III we get a myriad lethal slivers, a glitzy advert for crystal jewellery perhaps – (I was reminded briefly of the Swarovski-sponsored production of Harrison Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus which sparkled expensively at the English National Opera in 2019) – but the idea of an evil replicated in glass is not explored in anything like the same sinister way as in Enter the Dragon; one simply hopes the cleaners had big dustpans and brushes and wore protective gloves. John Wick strolls off set his mind already stirring tea in the trailer. Without motive there is no tension or release in the emotional chains that bind character to inexorable action. Mere blood-nonchalance survives. John Wick III sometimes feels more like product-placement for video games or armaments than a serious or even comic attempt to put violence in any other context than one of sheer indulgence.
A few scenes apart, those with decent Kung Fu choreography, those with Dillon and Huston, John Wick III felt like a cinematic near-nadir; depressing despite its lavish display and lavish cost benefits. A digital hell-hole masquerading as harmless thrills. But if you like drinking copious draughts of quasi-fascistic rocket fuel you will love it.
From the hells of parabellum to paradise. Or Parasite. For in Bong Joon-ho’s film of that name, like John Wick III, released in 2019, one can discover a cinema of heavenly treats laid out on a wobbly lazy-Susan full of twists, turns and mythological éclats. There is violence too – not the piles of corpses offered by John Wick III, but individual acts of desperation that project an upstairs/downstairs drama onto something sinister – along the lines of Ron Reiner’s Misery – both are films of entrapment albeit in radically different ways. The traps in Paradise are economic and psychological. The poor Kim family are trapped in dire housing at the bottom of the city and can’t get jobs, while the Park family live in luxury on a lovely hillside and are able to afford a driver, housekeeper, and private tutors. Mr Park, the breadwinner, leaves the house and children to his wife, whose ability to pay for the running of everything meets the requirements of her neurotic and as it happens, gullible temperament. Thus the Kims are able to dupe her into replacing her current paid servants with, one by one, themselves, masquerading as linked but unrelated service professionals. A beautifully paced and acted comedy of deception unfolds.
We are also being shown a film about vast differences in wealth and opportunity and how people are trapped in their social groups for better or worse – economic marriage without hope of divorce – something that Bong wanted to outline as of current concern in modern Korean society. Bong choreographs all aspects of the film to show at micro and macro levels the sorts of emotional and social forces in play that drive these differences. The most obvious contrast between rich and poor is in living conditions; the Park’s house is architect designed, whereas the Kims make the best of things in a cramped basement flat of peculiar awkwardness, obviously a dwelling hewn out of a larger property by unscrupulous builders. Its low ceilings and tight corners are oppressive, and the bathroom features a toilet perched on a dais. It looks very wrong up there. And Bong lets us know about hygiene in subtle ways – the way Min, the friend of the Kim son, lifts his feet instinctively from the sticky linoleum floor when he pays a visit – a microsecond of distaste; the way we later learn that the rich can smell the poor. The basement smell.
The plot moves from comedy to something darker and takes fully rounded, sympathetic characters along with it. Since nobody in the film is played as a cliché the violence when it comes, and it does come, is all the more shocking. The Parks and the Kims are likable. The Kims, of course, are outrageous in the way that they dispense with the servants in situ, but can salve their consciences to a degree by claiming that they are still performing important services for the Parks. Mrs Park or ‘Madame’ as her Korean name, Choi Yeongyo, translates as, is first seen slumped in a sort of stupor. We rarely see her doing anything except planning a meal or a party. She is clearly suffering from some sort of upper class ennui, and is ripe for exploitation by the deviously clever Kims. She is happy enough to allow the Kim brother and sister, called ‘Kevin’ and ‘Jessica’ for the purposes of their subterfuge, to take her children, also a son and daughter, in charge. The parallelism of this arrangement is obvious. Kevin and the Park daughter, Park Da-hye, immediately embark on a cheesy teen romance once he has wowed her with hastily learned pop-psychology exam techniques, while Jessica convinces Madame that the dark shapes the boy, Park Da-song, produces in the corners of his flamboyant crayon drawings are indicative of disturbing personality traits that must be exorcised by means of 8 hours of art therapy per week. The Park children, with the collusion of their mother are trapped and made dependent on their much lower status teachers.
What becomes clear as the movie progresses is how carefully Bong has staged the arenas for the interaction and separation of the two families. We see a gradual takeover of the Park space by the Kims. By appearing to master the richly endowed domain of the Park family, the Kims seem to have achieved their dual aims of satisfying their financial needs and of occupying a hitherto forbidden zone of luxury. But their triumph is short-lived. Their fall at the hands of the equally downtrodden former house keeper, Gook Moon-gwang, is what lifts the film into other areas. It transpires that Gook has been hiding her debt-ridden husband, Oh Geun-sae, in a basement unknown to the Parks, since they had both formerly been servants of the architect of the property and had never revealed the existence of the subterranean depths to the Parks, the new owners after the architect’s departure abroad. Something is being said here about the rich not even noticing the poor even when under their noses. Oh, has lived underground for four years and is clearly not of a healthy mind-set.
It is worth looking at how the two poor families’ power grab of the Park riches is undercut, by sampling Bong’s use of thematic structures to press home differentials between the opposing groups. Firstly, rain. After a battle between Gook and Oh, and the Kims, seems to have been momentarily won by the Kims, they are then surprised by the Park’s early return from a camping trip due to pouring rain. Now desperate to escape, since they inadvertently gave themselves away to Gook as family plotters rather than unrelated servants, the Kims find themselves trapped under a vast coffee table as Mr and Mrs Park make love on a nearby sofa. Tellingly, Mr Park desires Madame more if she wears ‘the cheap knickers’. Despite the no doubt pungent effect of their exertions, the Parks can still smell the Kim’s basement odour even though they can’t see them sandwiched together like sardines under the coffee table. It is when one is pondering on these olfactory fruits that one suddenly thinks, ‘oh, those cheap knickers!’ That is – the knickers that Jessica slipped off when returning home in the Park’s chauffer driven car, after having delivered her hokum art therapy session to the little boy, in order that the said chauffer be implicated in casual sex in the vehicle, not with Jessica of course, but with woman, or even women unknown. Which delicious sleight of hand allows Mr Kim to become the highly recommended new driver after the sacking of the old. We also ponder Mr Park’s desire for fantasy sex with a lower class or even ‘cheap’ woman in the guise of his wife. But to return to the rain; it is rattling the windows as the post-coital Parks drop off to sleep. Once the coast is clear we see Mr Kim sliding like a snake out of the Park’s living room – an Edenic reject going on his belly; then, in one of the very few outdoor scenes (the film is essentially a stage play) we see the bedraggled, drenched Kims descend from the Park’s exalted suburb. Lower and lower – down to where they belong. A major portal along the way is the Jahamun Tunnel in Seoul reached by a steep and jagged staircase; a mock-archaic setting for descent. Down they go, sodden – as full of despair as Orpheus. The inundated alleyways and gateways narrow and the air is mephitic – uncollected rubbish sacks are everywhere; we might be reminded of Avernus and other toxic springs of Ancient Greece so marvellously adumbrated in T. R. Glover’s Springs of Hellas. Or we are reminded of another variation on the rejection from Paradise. When the Kims reach their home, that eccentric structure now recognizable as very similar to the rabbit warren (or Cretan labyrinth) under the Park’s house, it is awash with floodwater. Some sort of culmination of the dismal is reached here, symbolised by excremental excess; the sewers have burst. Earlier we have been treated to the reoccurring urination of a drunken neighbour outside the Kim’s window, but now the full force of pent up sewage is let loose. We hear how good the rain is for the Park’s garden from Madame, as scenes of her luscious, saturated lawns are contrasted with Mr Kim up to his neck in effluent, trying to salvage his military medals and other keepsakes. The cooling liquids that revive Madame’s shrubs spell doom for the ill-conceived structures of the Kim house. Here is the class contrast sought by Bong at its most graphic. Jessica sits atop the toilet on its absurd dais as it spits filth; she lights a cigarette in resignation. The Parks have everything, including their fashionable neuroses and perfected boredom, yet the Kims scavenge their own possessions from a swill of slapping shit and piss. They have graduated from basement to open latrine.
Secondly, food; another indicator of social class, one that be analysed as to the varying competence of its acquisition or preparation. The Kim family celebrate success by feasting on alcohol and fast-food snacks – they upgrade from beer to whiskey when they find themselves ‘in charge’ of the Park household when the Parks have departed for the camping trip, yet the snacks remain more of less the same in whichever venue they choose for eating. In their own oppressive flat they huddle round their small kitchen table with crisps. After the first Park pay check comes in, they upgrade to pizzas, pizzas whose boxes they were too incompetent to fold properly at the start of the film. Once they have elevated themselves, literally by altitude and by class, they can no longer be contained in the same camera shot as they loll and lounge over the expansive and expensive furnishings of the Park living room – they only lack the cliché of Roman slaves lowering grapes into their mouths. They celebrate the apex of their achievement in this indulgent feast yet they more or less stick to their culinary roots. The Parks on the other hand talk of tasty dishes much of the time – food is prepared for ‘Kevin’ as soon as his first lesson with Da-hye is over. Of course the pampered yet neurotic Madame prepares none of this food herself – the most amusing shot of her household incompetence is when, having sacked the old housekeeper, she is seen in turmoil by the dishwasher – ‘my wife has no talent for housework’, as Mr Park says, thus cueing the next part of the Kim’s plan to get Mrs Kim to take on the housekeeper role. The surprise return of the Parks as the two poor families fight, is announced by Madame’s phone call requesting ram-don in eight minutes, a dish she probably never cooks and one which Mrs Kim hasn’t a clue how to. But food is also a potential killer. Earlier in the film Gook is sacked since Jessica, firmly embedded in her role as art therapist, makes her ill by deliberately triggering her peach skin allergy, later passed off by Mr Kim as tuberculosis. In the Gook/Jessica fight later on, the latter gets a whole bag of hairy peaches and smears them all over Gook. Food also frames the two episodes of the little Park boy’s anaphylactic shock responses. It is while gorging himself on a huge cake that he first sees the ‘ghost’ – actually Oh emerging from the hidden basement on a food raid – triggering a near fatal shock. In the awful climax of the film set in the gorgeous Park garden, a very similar cake is brought to him by Jessica for his birthday, when she is fatally stabbed by the same ‘ghost’ finally risen into the light in order to wreak vengeance for the death of his wife – yes, Gook has died due to a combination of allergic reaction and head injuries sustained when Mrs Kim kicked her down the stairs into the dungeon. The little boy is seen passing into shock once more, as cake and blood foam all over the high-society guests, the exquisite couples, their pampered children, the hired soprano and basso continuo, gathered on the idyllic lawns. We never see any of the Parks again.
A film in three acts then. The aforementioned feast where the Kim’s imagine themselves in possession of all that the Park’s stand for, is really the last time we see them basking in the rewards of their clever sequence of ruses. So far so entertaining. A two act amuse-bouche with no further ambitions for a main course – the first act showing the humiliations of poverty, the second showing a fraudulent rise to the heights of the exclusive Park villa. A sprightly tale of mischief with a pleasant ensemble cast. The film might have ended there – perhaps with comic-glum faces as the Park’s catch the Kim’s at the whiskey by returning early. Naughty but not a sackable offence; the Kims cover would appear intact. The Parks do return early but by then all has changed for the worse. The volta is at a precise point – it is just after the 1 hour 3 minute mark. It is Gook, so brilliantly played by Lee Jung-eun, who triggers the tragedy to follow. The doorbell rings and in the video intercom we see the face of the former housekeeper. We know at once that something is wrong, something that sets up a third, unexpected act. For the sacked housekeeper is barely recognizable; gone the tight bun and tight-lipped demeanour, gone the silent assent to the wishes of Madame. She now appears deranged, grinning wildly and peering crazily through huge fish-eye glasses; she is dripping wet from the rain and babbles almost incomprehensibly. She doesn’t look right at all. She has the kind of smile that Kathy Bates perfected for Misery when ensnaring James Caan.
The unity of lower class demise. The husband of one poor family on the run is replaced by another. Oh had been on the run from debt collectors, Mr Kim is now in fear of arrest for murder. To summarise: by the end of the film, Jessica is dead, Kevin barely alive, Oh is dead, and Mr Kim has killed Mr Park, driven to it by the final insult of Mr Park smelling the basement in him even as people are being attacked by the deranged husband of Gook. Two poor men forced to choose the warren of dank dungeons under the upper class family’s house – they would be too easily caught in their own poor neighbourhoods. Mr Kim is Oh’s replacement. He must live under the feet of the wealthy German family that take over the house from the tragic Parks, having no idea of the horrific deaths that have taken place there. The poor cowering in plain sight – except hidden by tricks of architecture – for this reason the very buildings of upper and lower classes are interleaved and yet their respective populations are kept forever apart by a crank-handle-operated cupboard that only Gook, Oh, and now Mr Kim, know about. This open sesame is never really open and the light can never trickle down, except in the form of rain and sewage. Recovering from the braining he received from Oh, Kevin dreams of buying the Park property so that he can lead Mr Kim up from the Underworld. But a dream is all it is.
I think I’ve said enough on how well meshed this film is, although I’ve only touched on a few aspects of what is a deeply rewarding and thoughtful viewing experience. What in the end makes Bong’s film live on past the credit roll, is the way it makes the viewer think about how all the aspects of the film can be seen to weave, coalesce, or split. The seamless plot, as intricate and ‘mechanical’ as a Brian Rix farce, nevertheless contains within its black comic structure deeper cultural meaning. To make terrific entertainment whilst going beyond it, is a mark of true excellence in film-making.
©David Hackbridge Johnson 2/3.i.2021
 More properly, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Henceforth John Wick III. Parabellum is Latin for ‘prepare for war’, as Keanu Reeves explains in the film.
 John Carpenter, Escape From New York, 1981.
 John Boorman, The General, 1998. Mel Brooks, The Producers. I must also mention Ken Stott as Martin Cahill in Kieran Prendiville’s excellent BBC drama, Vicious Circle, 1999.
 Carol Reed, The Third Man, 1949.
 Robert Clouse, Enter the Dragon, 1973.
 I am thinking of the Cheh Chang’s Vengeance, 1970, where David Chiang fights in a series of brutal scenes and where desperate faces are seen in close-up.
 For those that like to collect such information, the following weapons were used in John Wick III: Pistols: Arex REX Alpha, Bond Arms Texas Defender, Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless, CZ 75B, CZ 75 SP-01 PHANTOM, Glock 17, Glock 19, Glock 19 (TTI Combat Master Package), Glock 19X, Glock 34, Glock 34 (TTI Combat Master Package), Heckler & Koch P30L, Kimber Warrior, SIG-Sauer P365, TTI STI 2011 Combat Master, Walther CCP, Walther PPQ. Revolvers: Remington 1875, Colt 1851 Navy, Colt 1860 Army (Denix replica). Submachine Guns/PCCs: Angstadt Arms UDP-9, CMMG MkGs Banshee, CZ Scorpion Evo 3 S1, PTR 9CT, SIG-Sauer MPX, SIG-Sauer MPX Copperhead, TTI SIG-Sauer MPX Carbine. Rifles/Carbines: AR-15 variants, Veritas Tactical VT16 PDW. Shotguns:, Benelli M2 Super 90 (TTI M2 Ultimate 3 Gun Package), Benelli M4 Super 90. I have omitted grenades and weapons in various armouries, and those in the antique weapons museum. http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/John_Wick:_Chapter_3_-_Parabellum – last accessed 3.i.2021.
 Perhaps the presence of ‘para’ is the only reason I’ve grouped these two films together.
 Ron Reiner, Misery, 1990.
 T. R. Glover, Springs of Hellas, Cambridge at the University Press, 1945. Avernus is described on p. 10.