Audiences would have never predicted that the low-key release of an action film about a former hitman who takes out his revenge on the Russian gangsters who killed his dog would’ve not only spawned into a film franchise that redefined the action genre, but also create and build upon a deeply layered, intricate world of assassins, gangsters, and hotel managers that felt grand in scale and fantasy-like in complexity.
As each John Wick film graced the silver screen, the details and additions added into the world-building elements of this franchise separated it from every other action film of the last decade. Unique engraved gold coins, created by a mysterious and powerful group called The High Table, run a worldwide underground economy that can buy guns, killers, medical treatment, information, and safe passage at a hotel called The Continental, that caters to a very specific clientele… murderers for hire. And while the notorious myth and widely known legend of the one they called ‘Baba Yaga’ was the central narrative for the John Wick film series, 3-part event series The Continental promises to take fans even deeper into this world, back to a time before John Wick.
In a grungy and dirty 1970s New York, Winston Scott (Colin Woodell), a smooth-talking, international businessman is forcefully returned home from the United Kingdom at the request of Cormac (Mel Gibson), the manager of The Continental of New York.
Alongside his brother Frankie (Ben Robson), Winston spent his childhood working for Cormac, learning the ways of the New York criminal underworld. But as the brothers matured and chose separate paths in life, it’s not a surprise to Winston that Cormac’s retrieval of him involves finding Frankie after the Continental’s sacred coin press goes missing, with Frankie being the number one suspect on the unhinged Cormac’s list.
Reinserting himself into a world he once left behind, Winston infiltrates Frankie’s eclectic and eccentric crew of “the good kind of criminals” to investigate why Frankie stole the coin press, but learns of the corruption within The Continental, led by Cormac himself, that pushes Winston to team up with Frankie and his crew to disrupt Cormac’s plans by any means necessary.
If the name Winston, within the world of John Wick, sounds familiar, that is because it is the name of the charmingly snarky and unflinchingly loyal character played in the film series to perfection by Ian McShane. And along with a young Charon, The Continental’s concierge, played in the film by the late, great Lance Reddick, there are a handful of familiar entry points for fans to lead into this series with. And also with these solid connections, and the overbearing marketing connections of the show being “From The World Of John Wick”, it’s impossible to not draw comparisons to its film-based source material.
It is probably safe for most people to assume that The Continental is not John Wick in terms of quality. However, it is most likely what most audiences would expect from the “TV show” version of John Wick. It’s action packed for the most part, the story returning to familiar places like The Continental and the Bowery serve as fun callbacks (or call-forwards in this case), and many of the cavalcade of side characters share the same abstract quirks that the films popularised. The main thing that is missing from The Continental, is that unlike John Wick’s grandiose sense of being grounded in its own heightened world, this 3-part series feels more so like it is set in the real world, and it loses a lot of the awe factor the films carried for that reason.
The gritty 1970s New York setting is established early on in its smoke-hazed, neon lit, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll atmosphere, something that feels oddly detached from the world of John Wick itself. The immersion into a world that feeds off of a certain suspension of belief is affected by the less stylised elements of the show. Despite being a neon-lit setting, the lighting and cinematography feel quite bland, even by modern-day TV standards. Aside from a few of the sets (and mainly ones seen in the films before), the world doesn’t feel rich and engaging, both visually and narratively, especially in the first episode in which the importance of establishing the world is paramount.
As the second episode goes on, under the direction of Charlotte Brandstrom, the series finds it’s stylised footing a little more as Brandstrom moves the camera around in a way that is reminiscent of Chad Stahelski, using dutch angles or wide framed shots to give an awe-inspiring sense of scope. And for the episode that features the least amount of action, her direction gives more gravitas to a story that definitely becomes more engaging throughout.
The Continental is bookended by its first (Night 1) and final (Night 3) episodes with elongated, and mostly exhilarating, action set pieces. However, it does feel odd to say that the best episode is the one with the least action (Night 2), as it allows the characters and narrative to breathe without being bogged down by forced plots and arcs in the middle of high stakes shootouts and punch ups. This is felt during the Night 1 and Night 3 episodes, which have severe pacing issues, both feeling quite overlong at 90+ minutes each, and being structurally all over the place by adding uninteresting side stories involving characters who don’t get enough screen time to actually care about them.
While the overarching story is centred around Winston, of which Colin Woodell’s performance suits this series, but doesn’t always feel like the foundations of the Winston we know and love from the films, there are far too many subplots involving minor issues that characters are dealing with. It can definitely be argued that a series dedicated to expanding an established universe should involve these sorts of stories, but the half-baked nature of them don’t add any real substance to the overall experience, with performances too match as the actors only have so much material to work with.
A disappointing example of this is a brother and sister pair of twin assassins, whose entire aesthetic (the brother looking like a legitimate doppelganger of Lord Farquaad from Shrek, no joke) fits the abstract world that John Wick has built, are completely underdeveloped and underused, leaving much to be desired about their characters as the show focuses on less exciting plot threads, like a completely generic detective narrative that’s been done a million times before.
The character of Cormac does fall into this oddly divisive trap as well, as an unhinged performance from Mel Gibson (which doesn’t feel like too much of a stretch of his acting capabilities) is truly captivating to watch unfold, but also feels tonally inconsistent at points as he mutters truly terrible puns and one liners that usually involve a weapon he just used to murder someone. Sure, a chuckle can be had when these dad-joke lines are said, nonetheless by a psychotically intense Gibson, but they don’t match well with the tone of the show. An acting standout however is Ayomide Adegun as the younger iteration of Charon, who embodies a youthful energy that feels the most like their future character, channeling an empathetic and headstrong performance perfected by Lance Reddick.
The action scenes are exciting, and feature a completely normal amount of bloodshed and bone-breaking caused by fists, knives, guns, swords, golf clubs, grenades… you name it! Bullets fly through the air recklessly, booming through hotel halls as multitudes of stunt performers and fight choreographers ragdoll themselves in brutal combat situations.The show does feel truly alive in these moments, a noble attempt to recreate the genre redefining action that has come before it. It’s a tough act to follow, considering how amazing the action scenes of the John Wick films are. The dynamic energy of Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski is missing from this show. There is a decision to focus more on a shaky-cam approach to capture the action, which does at times cheapen the intensity of the violence by trying to faux the brutality, rather than just letting it play out. But overall, The Continental does provide a decent dose of hyper-violent action throughout.
The Continental is what was to be expected from a TV version of John Wick. There’s loads of frantic action to boot, along with the elements and quirks that made this world so exciting to explore. After a shaky first episode that feels a little bland and overlong, the show begins to find its footing as it leads into an explosive finale that won’t blow anyone out of the water (or through the walls of The Continental), but it does enough to satisfy the John Wick fans looking for a little more action in their lives.
The Continental: From the World of John Wick streams its premiere episode on September 22, with the next two episodes releasing in the following weeks.
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