'John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum' Is a Ridiculously Great Action Movie Title
With its outlandish and entertaining third entry John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the John Wick franchise has entered an elite group of action movies. You know the type of movie I'm referring to: Sequels with incredibly preposterous, grammatically adventurous, and objectively hilarious titles. As the Wick movies get progressively bigger -- adding more recognizable actors, more gravity-defying dogs, more meticulously crafted gun-fu fight scenes, more convoluted mythology about coins, and more minutes to the runtime -- it only makes sense for the titles to expand in word count. The old John Wick made gangsters fear for their lives; the new John Wick makes copy editors tremble.
The first film starring Keanu Reeves as the deadly assassin, released in 2014 with little pre-release expectation and hype, had a fairly standard, straightforward title: John Wick. Like the movie itself, the title was compact and purposeful, a perfect way to bring viewers into an underworld thriller about a man seeking vengeance for his dead dog. Who is this movie about? Duh, it's about John Wick. Who is John Wick? Well, watch the movie and find out.
Following the success of the first film, Reeves starred in the slightly wonkier sequel, John Wick: Chapter 2, which featured more scenes at The Continental, a secret hotel for hit men and women established in the first film, and an even higher body count. The choice to make the second film a "chapter" hinted at the loftier, slightly baroque ambitions of series writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski. The implication was that each John Wick movie was part of a larger story, like a leather-bound book Ian McShane's Continental manager Winston might keep in his office. It was a relatively unfussy, mildly presumptuous gesture toward the possibility of a larger universe.
John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum is yet another expansion. My reaction to reading the title when it was first announced was to laugh -- really, really hard. The title has the same sense of goofy, florid gravitas that the series has increasingly leaned into. It sounds like the name of a nu-metal album you found in your older sibling's CD binder. (There's a Colombian extreme metal group and a French punk band that already use the word for their names.) As a franchise, John Wick has incredible "studies Latin once" energy, so Parabellum fits the series like a freshly pressed, blood-spattered white dress shirt.
It also makes (some) sense in the context of the movie. The phrase translates to "prepare for war," which is what Wick is doing in the film as he mobilizes against the deadly assassins sent to kill him by the powerful High Table organization. Before the third act's biggest gun battle, McShane's Winston utters the full phrase "Si vis pacem, para bellum", and it appears on screen in those flashy, colorful sub-titles that the series is so fond of. Never an actor to undersell a big moment, McShane gives it just the right combination of grave solemnity and smirking "I'm saying the title of the movie" panache.
There's a less ancient meaning behind the title as well. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, director Chad Stahelski jokingly said that the title was part of the movie's attempt to "edumacate" its audience, but he also explained that it carries another meaning in some circles. "Parabellum is also what some military and ballistic guys use to describe a nine millimeter -- parabellum. It’s a gun term,” he said. More specifically, the word can refer to a 9×19mm pistol developed by Austrian firearms designer Georg Luger; it's also known as the Luger, a weapon frequently seen in action and war movies.
There's a long, decadent history of action sequels experimenting with punctuation and pushing the boundaries of the English language. Recently, the Mission: Impossible series, which like the new Wick title often deploys both a colon and a dash, has pushed itself to new creative and financial heights with joyfully ludicrous names like Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol, Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation, and Mission: Impossible -- Fallout. Similarly, The Fast and the Furious franchise continues to innovate in this realm, with the new Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs and Shaw dropping later this summer, and the glorious 2 Fast 2 Furious and Furious Seven shining in the rearview mirror. Clearly, John Wick is in good company.
Action movie series like Rambo, with the super-confusing-sounding Rambo: First Blood Part II, and Die Hard, which ditched numerals altogether after the first sequel, have established that there are few rules when it comes to giving your action movie a cool-sounding title. (The only real rule is don't give your first movie an incomprehensible title -- see Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever.) It helps to have some consistency, so it would make sense if the fourth John Wick movie was named something like John Wick: Chapter 4 – E Pluribus Unum. But, again, this is uncharted territory, and I defer to Reeves and his creative partners.
My only hope is that they just continue to get more and more ornate. Why stop here? Let's get some line breaks in there or introduce parentheses next time. From its opening fight scene in a library to its glass-shattering finale in a previously unexplored wing of The Continental, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum pushes the boundaries of what a John Wick movie can be. There's no reason the titles shouldn't continue to take similar risks.