Even fans of John Wick had reason to be skeptical of studio Lionsgate’s attempts to expand the film series into an ongoing multi-media franchise. The movies are top-notch American martial arts cinema, combining the tight fight choreography of peak Hong Kong action with equally intricate gunplay and vehicular warfare and set in a world with film noir trappings and video game rules. But though that action aesthetic has been widely imitated, it’s never been totally reproduced, even by original directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch themselves in other projects. And how could the John Wick universe expand without its main attraction, Keanu Reeves?
Despite all of this, the first brand extension, The Continental: From the World of John Wick, doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. A three-part miniseries that debuts on Peacock on September 22nd, The Continental holds to the basic tenets of the John Wick films — brutal but beautiful action, a stylized environment, a righteous fury against uncaring institutions — and otherwise does its own thing. The miniseries is set in 1970s New York and stars Colin Woodell (The Flight Attendant) as a young Winston Scott, the cravat-wearing businessman portrayed by Ian McShane in the John Wick films. After making his fortune in England, Winston is kidnapped back to his native New York to answer for his brother Frankie’s (Ben Robson, Vikings) misdeeds. Frankie has stolen something precious from Cormac (Mel Gibson — I know, we’ll get to it), the crime lord who took the Scott brothers under his wing as children. In search of his brother and with his own life on the line, Winston re-enters the gritty, brown-leather-clad criminal underworld and embarks on a quest to destroy Cormac and claim his territory, the hotel for assassins known as The Continental. He can’t do it alone, of course, so he assembles a team of outsiders and has-beens who are willing to risk crossing Cormac and the mysterious High Table under which he serves.
Their scheme is part heist, part raid, and part assassination, a task complex enough to merit two episodes’ worth of setup and anticipation. Unlike the John Wick films, which are tightly focused on the title character, The Continental supports an ensemble of wounded warriors with a variety of personalities, backstories, and combat specialties. Where Wick is on a single-minded rampage to avenge the life that was taken from him, the Continental crew is joined by an elaborate web of different, loving relationships. Yen (Nhung Kate) is a former Khmer Rouge soldier who ran off to the US after falling for Frankie Scott. Frankie’s war buddy Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) is now a gunrunner, whose sister Lou (Jessica Allain) is a martial artist trying to honor her late father’s legacy and by keeping his dojo from falling into the hands of the mob. Their father’s friend, the Southern gentleman Jenkins (Ray McKinnon), is an over-the-hill sniper who used to have a room at The Continental himself. Time is spent endearing each of these characters to the audience, and establishing why Winston’s mission to destroy Cormac is personal to them, as well as the flavor that each of them contributes to The Continental’s stew of violence. None of the characterization is terribly subtle, but it is engaging and I found myself feeling very protective of the gang during the climactic confrontation.
The miniseries serves as an origin story for Winston, but it doesn’t demonstrate any of the annoying symptoms of “prequelitis.” Colin Woodell’s magnetic performance as Winston is a distant extrapolation of McShane’s character; they’re both men of quiet intensity and charisma and you can easily imagine one growing into the other, but The Continental does not attempt to mold him into his more recognizable form over the course of one story. Apart from Winston and Cormac’s teenage protege Charon (played in the films by the late Lance Reddick and here by newcomer Ayomide Adegun), none of the central characters have ties to established John Wick lore, and the odd character or subplot that references its mythology does so in service of this story. There are practically no winking calls-forward or Easter Eggs for fans of the series, and it is 100% approachable to viewers who have never seen or even heard of John Wick. The Continental’s thrilling, over-the-top action and “disco noir” atmosphere (as director/producer Albert Hughes calls it) should be more than enough to satisfy fans, but it feels as if it’s been built with a different audience in mind, that of stylish period crime dramas like Warrior or Peaky Blinders. In contrast to a lot of tie-ins and spin-offs, one can imagine The Continental actually having a broader appeal than the franchise that spawned it.
As such, I can understand the producers’ choice to shell out for a big name movie star to draw mainstream attention to the miniseries. It is, however, very frustrating that they chose to hire Mel Gibson, the former A-lister with a long, public history of racist and anti-Semitic remarks. I will not condescend by suggesting that Gibson’s performance isn’t good. His ability to smile with his teeth while threatening you with his eyes is a perfect fit for his crime lord character, and he’s in lock step with the heightened reality of the show. His presence is, however, an unwelcome distraction, and it irks me that he receives top billing in the opening credits for what is actually a supporting role. I’m annoyed that, in my honest, positive response to The Continental, I am forced to participate in Gibson’s latest attempt at career rehabilitation. I dislike that anyone who streams the show on my recommendation will, unwittingly, be helping Gibson’s agent argue that his guy is still marketable and should be eligible for bigger gigs at a higher price. I hate that, in order to counterbalance this effect, I have to dedicate a paragraph of this review of a show I like to arguing that you should consider skipping it.
Gibson’s presence isn’t my only criticism of the series. While mostly on point, the music curation by London DJ Raffertie is occasionally a pinch too cute. Night Two is scored almost wall to wall with 70s hits and obscurities, to the extent that it smothers or otherwise distracts from dramatic scenes. A subplot centering on a police detective (Mishel Prada) investigating the forbidden world of the Continental drags through its second act, while a feud between Lou and a Chinatown kingpin (Dan Li) is mostly divorced from the main story and clutters Lou’s journey as a character. Finally, where the John Wick films introduce the weirder, more comic book elements of their world very gradually, The Continental tends to toss them into the mix at odd intervals, which may be jarring to new viewers who aren’t expecting a massive, kilt-wearing enforcer or a straight-up sword-swinging ninja to show up in their 1970s crime thriller. But for those who are willing to suspend their disbelief and go with the flow of this fun, pulpy adventure, it’s absolutely worth booking three nights at The Continental.