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The Continental review: John Wick is less fun without John Wick

Mel Gibson looks casually menacing behind a desk
The Continental review: John Wick is less fun without John Wick
“There's a Keanu-shaped void of mythic charisma at the center of this series.”
  • It's stylishly directed
  • Plenty of carnage
  • Mel Gibson is a convincing villain, go figure
  • No Keanu
  • Too much plot
  • A Spotify-shuffle soundtrack

Ever wonder how Winston Scott, the dapper aristocrat Ian McShane plays in the John Wick movies, came to control that swanky Manhattan hotel for assassins? Of course you haven’t! The guy needs backstory about as much as Wick himself needs backup. But with the man, the myth, the legend out of commission (at least for now — the ending of March’s John Wick: Chapter 4 could easily be walked back), the architects of this suddenly Keanu-free franchise are looking for ways to do John Wick without John Wick. Their first solution is to go back in time, via a prequel that chronicles the origins of McShane’s rule-bound proprietor across three feature-length episodes streaming on Peacock.

Save for black-and-white flashbacks that essentially tuck an origin story inside an origin story, The Continental is set entirely in the 1970s, when Wick was presumably still in hitman grade school. Even if the series didn’t explicitly identify the time period, you’d clock it from the soundtrack, an endlessly blaring jukebox of the most overused ’70s needle drops available to license. Pink Floyd, The Who, Harry Nilsson — if you’ve heard it in a movie or show before, there’s a good chance you’ll hear it again here.

Young Winston is played by Colin Woodell. If you squint hard enough, you can maybe see some resemblance to McShane, though it’s impossible to imagine this preppy convincingly uttering the word “cocksucker.” Having successfully extricated himself from the criminal underworld that loomed over his childhood, Winston finds himself pulled back in when his estranged, hired-gun older brother, Frankie (Ben Robson), rips off Cormac (Mel Gibson), who runs that aforementioned hitman hotel, The Continental. The heisted MacGuffin is an ancient coin press of undisclosed power; when someone pops it open mid-series, it glows like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction.

You could call The Continental a dual origin story. It also lays out the early adulthood of Charon (Ayomide Adegun), the character the late Lance Reddick played in the Wick movies. We meet the diplomatic face of The Continental when he’s still under the employ of the villainous Cormac. It’s no spoiler to say that the guy’s allegiances will shift, but 40 years after helping Winston stage a coup, you’d think he’d have been promoted beyond the concierge desk. Let’s hope the hotel’s benefits passage was competitive at least.

Colin Woodell holds his hands up as someone behind him points a gun and a flashlight at him
Colin Woodell in The Continental: From the World of John Wick Katalin Vermes / Starz Entertainment

The guest list of The Continental sprawls into a full ensemble. It includes a dogged detective (Mishel Prada), a pair of sibling gunrunners (Jessica Allain and Hubert Point-Du Jour), Frankie’s vengeful wife (Nhung Kate), and a glib gentleman sniper (Ray McKinnon) — all converging, by the action-packed final episode, within the eponymous luxury establishment. These characters are a little more grounded, a little more human than the colorful, disposable martial arts archetypes that populate the movies. Which is part of the problem here: Who wants a more grounded, realistic John Wick?

Often, the show plays more like warmed-over Elmore Leonard. It does have a certain stylish pop courtesy of directors Albert Hughes (working without brother Allen, with whom he once made Menace II Society) and Charlotte Brändström. Neither skimp on that famous Wickian violence: Heads take bullets, bodies splatter on pavement, and one poor goon gets his hand shoved into a garbage disposal. All the same, the fights — even the good ones, like a close-quarters brawl in a phone booth — strain to approximate the famously precise, acrobatic, visceral stunt work Chad Stahelski brought to this material. As with most television spinoffs, there’s the sense that cinematic pleasures have been squashed to fit the small screen.

The real issue is in the ratio of gab to action. In truth, that’s sometimes a problem with the movies, too. While the fanciful mythology was part of the charm of the 2014 original, the Wick sequels have perhaps exhausted its appeal, with one too many scenes of well-dressed people standing around in opulent rooms debating the finer points of their secret society. The Continental goes lighter on the feudal intrigue (there’s less of the High Table), but way heavier on the melodrama. Besides Winston’s tortured sibling relationship, subplots involving the Vietnam War and racial tensions in ’70s New York are incongruously integrated into a cartoon reality where assassins have their own hotels, currency, and aristocracy.

Mark Musashi and Marina Mazepa stand side-by-side in an elevator.
Mark Musashi and Marina Mazepa in The Continental: From the World of John Wick Starz Entertainment / Starz Entertainment

The only element genuinely calibrated to the lunatic spirit of the films is Gibson’s scenery-chewing performance as the heavy. However one feels about Hollywood’s ongoing rehabilitation of this disgraced actor’s career, the role productively channels Gibson’s more bilious qualities into outsized bad-guy theatrics, savoring his curdled star power during scenes like the one where Cormac gets around the no-killing protocol of his hotel by coercing a henchman into leaping off a balcony to his death. Not since Dragged Across Concrete has someone put his toxicity to better use.

Still, there’s a Keanu-shaped void of mythic charisma at the center of this series — one that certainly can’t be filled by Woodell and his boringly prequelized protagonist, climbing the criminal ladder as a way to work through his stock traumatic adolescence. Subtitle aside, The Continental rarely feels like it’s actually taking place in the “world of John Wick.” It’s too plot-heavy, too tasteful, too dully “character-driven” — a prestige TV take on a more flavorful genre-movie pastiche. And at nearly five hours, it could inspire an impatient “tick-tock” from even the most indiscriminate of Wick fans.

The Continental: From the World of John Wick begins streaming on Peacock on Friday, September 22. For more of A.A. Dowd’s writing, please visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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