“The Continental: From the World of John Wick” is an easy watch for fans who want just a little more “John Wick” in their lives, especially as we await the possible announcement of a fifth Wick movie, and the Ana de Armas-starring spin-off next year, Len Wiseman’s “Ballerina.” But check your expectations at the door: this Peacock three-part prequel event series doesn’t have Keanu Reeves or the same all-around genre ambition as the movie franchise that inspired it.
The series, co-created by Greg Coolidge, Shawn Simmons, and Kirk Ward, takes on the unenviable task of trying to follow “John Wick: Chapter 4” by overthinking its plotting, creating serious stakes about family and loyalty, and using too many characters who are collectively half as intriguing as Reeves’ character. These three feature-length episodes are for the Winston-heads, for anyone who saw “John Wick” and was absolutely dying to know what fancy hotel owner and Wick mentor Winston Scott (played by Ian McShane) was up to decades ago.
Sure, going beyond “revenge for a dead dog” character motivation is a noble idea, but “The Continental” makes a chore out of setting two recently united brothers—the posh Winston (Colin Woodell, who nails the musicality of McShane’s voice) and his hot-head veteran brother Frankie (Ben Robson)—on a collision course with the father figure who made them violent men, Cormac (Mel Gibson, whose hammy fits of rage can be amusing). Cormac runs the New York assassin fortress known as the Continental and is assisted by the stoic Charon (Ayomide Adegun, doing a good Lance Reddick impression). When Frankie steals Cormac's prized coin-press in an elaborate heist that begins Night One, he becomes a primary target. After Cormac's first retaliation, making for one of the show’s few good twists, Winston decides it’s time for him to take over Cormac's Continental.
To pull off this suicide mission, Winston enlists the help of Frankie’s war buddies Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and Lemmy (Adam Shapiro), who co-run a dojo and gun stash in Chinatown with Miles’ sister, the gun-resistant Lou (Jessica Allain). They also receive key help in ass-kicking from Yen (Nhung Kate), Frankie's wife whom he met while a soldier in Vietnam, moments after a bomb secretly strapped to her chest didn’t go off. And while Cormac’s men are on the prowl for Winston’s team, there’s another arc with a cop named KD (Mishel Prada), who follows from a distance what’s been going on at the Continental but doesn’t know exactly why she can’t just wander into the swanky hotel.
Albert Hughes and Charlotte Brandstrom direct the mini-series' three episodes, inspired by ‘70s crime thrillers, and their greatest contribution to this world is recreating a moment in time. "The Continental" takes place in New York City in 1981 during the garbage strike, years after Vietnam, but with little psychological distance from it. The main characters are mostly combat-rattled veterans and immigrants seeking a safe perch in this world, the experiences of war informing their ability to kill and their loyalty to each other. But the imposition of real violence with the franchise's bloody fantasy—a world that features kooky twin assassins who have bowl cuts—proves to be overwrought. This is a more "serious" story in the "John Wick" universe, but that doesn't make it more exciting.
Credit to this series that thinks inside the box, “The Continental” has a few fun flourishes with its world-building. I loved getting more time with the tricky homeless army in the Bowery (from which Laurence Fishburne’s character, the Bowery King, comes), and there are also some clever ways in which locations become the weapons themselves, as with a dingy movie theater battle that deserves to be in a "John Wick" movie. But “The Continental” is marked repeatedly by underwhelming beats, as with its many gun-pointing stand-offs that are then resolved with some lazy surprise (or worse, someone waiting too long to pull the damn trigger). Even the intriguing appearance of The Adjudicator (played here by Katie McGrath), a messenger of sorts from the all-powerful High Table, is reduced to yet another villain with self-importance that comes from cheesy dialogue and a facial deformity.
Fans of the “John Wick” movies will at least get their subscription worth with this series' hand-to-hand combat scenes, which honor the cleanliness of Chad Stahelski and David Leitch’s work (and that of their stunt coordinating teams). As the camera sits back with full attention, it’s easy to relish who is getting hit when and how, allowing the choreography to shine in tight spaces (a phone booth) or one of the Continental's hallways. It may be no coincidence that the show’s two shiniest additions to the Wick world—Lou and Yen—are also its most impressive ass-kickers, their respective actors proving the power of their fists and feet in albeit rhythmically wonky sequences. “The Continental” struggles with good gun-fu, but at least it offers a home for excellent martial arts.
But there are also moments when the series shows its limited care for action spectacle, like when it cuts corners with dull blocking (as with constrictive hallway shootouts packed with CGI blood, shown to us as grainy security footage). A bombastic car chase in episode one should be a victory lap of sorts for the series, but “The Continental” just isn’t “John Wick”—so it cheaply uses flashes of black to skip certain developments in the fray, eliciting second-hand embarrassment more the surge of glee that cars smashing into each other should have within this universe.
The production puts more of its power (and budget) into a thrifty way of being stylish—needle drops, so much '70s rock. There are some scenes in which the songs are more exciting than the multiple protagonists on-screen, the grooves and gritty basslines having more edge to them. But instead of making the movie pop more, as needle-drops should in a soundtrack, it just makes “The Continental” more ordinary. Do we really need another tale to mark its new beginning with the intro of The Who’s “Baba O’Riley”?
Aside from lacking the pacing, grandiosity, or general action junkie intoxication of any “John Wick” movie, “The Continental” lacks their disarming cool most of all. Winston talks about how it’s not the suit that makes a man; it’s what’s inside the man that counts. “The Continental” fills its costume with more of the same, whether it’s flourishes borrowed from “John Wick” or from weary tropes that the film series tried to distance itself from and became legendary by doing so. The “John Wick” movies were all about fighting to the top; “The Continental” is just trying, without the sharp aim of its predecessor, to survive the night.
The first episode of "The Continental: From the World of John Wick" premieres on Friday, September 22nd, with a new episode each week until October 6.
Mel Gibson as Cormac
Colin Woodell as Winston Scott
Mishel Prada as KD
Hubert Point-Du Jour as Miles
Nhung Kate as Yen
Jessica Allain as Lou
Ayomide Adegun as Charon
Jeremy Bobb as Mayhew
Adam Shapiro as Lemmy
Kate McGrath as The Adjudicator
Marina Mazepa as Gretal
Mark Musashi as Hansel