The John Wick franchise’s seemingly endless capacity to put butts in movie theater seats despite the films having long since gone off the rails makes the existence of The Continental, Peacock’s new prequel miniseries from executive producers Greg Coolidge, Kirk Ward, and Shawn Simmons, not all that hard to understand. Given the way the movies have always hinted at a deeper mythos surrounding organizations like The High Table, The Continental’s focus on its titular hotel’s distant past seems like a solid concept at first — one perfect for setting the stage for what Lionsgate has in the pipeline.
Yet for all its strong action sequences and commitment to making the world of John Wick a more complex and fascinating place with a history similar to our own, The Continental absolutely shoots itself in the foot by hitching its wagon to a radioactive presence who drags the series down far more than they could ever lift it up.
Set in the nitty-gritty ’70s during the middle of a labor strike that leaves New York City even more congested with garbage, The Continental tells the bullet-ridden story of how a young Winston Scott (Colin Woodell) winds up fighting for his life after his brother Frankie (Ben Robson) runs afoul of the eponymous assassin hotel. As the only children born to a poor, single, immigrant mother, both of the Scott brothers already know a thing or two about surviving by the time we meet them in The Continental’s first episode as they’re being rounded up by the police on suspicion of being involved in some dangerous, petty crime.
In their youth, the pair are partners who understand the importance of relying on one another. But as the older brother, Frankie takes it upon himself to put Winston’s safety before his own, and The Continental opens at a point in their lives long after they’ve gone their separate ways to become very different kinds of people. Smartly, The Continental leaves the fine details of Winston’s life as a recent Vietnam war veteran-turned-ordinary English businessman to your imagination. In Frankie’s case, though, the series tosses you right into the deep end by way of the first of many muscular action set pieces meant to establish how much more chaotic and (apologies) funky a place the Continental was in the days of disco.
The John Wick franchise was built on a foundation of artful fighting sequences meant to sell you on the concept of a world where virtually everyone is a highly trained killer of some sort, and The Continental more than lives up to its predecessors on that front. The show puts action director Larnell Stovall’s impeccable choreography skills front and center just moments into the first episode, which establishes Frankie as the Wick-ian wunderkiller of his era and the hotel itself as a thriving safe zone for patrons possessing its signature golden coins.
As it establishes how criminals saw opportunities to make names for themselves in the chaos of the city’s strike-related woes, The Continental adds even more texture to its larger world and fills it with a surprisingly large number of the kind of “regular” people who aren’t usually the focus of the big screen John Wick features.
In the same way that dojo-owning siblings Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and Lou (Jessica Allain) can feel the cultural atmosphere of their neighborhood shifting, detectives KD (Mishel Prada) and Mayhew (Jeremy Bobb) can tell that something is galvanizing the entire city’s underworld. At its core, though, the show’s real focus is fixed on Winston’s battle against The High Table — the shadowy assassin cabal that uses Continental hotel branches as neutral zones across the world — which largely involves the presence who ends up dragging the entire series down in a way that could have been easily avoided.
Despite its featuring quite a few High Table-backed villains like the masked Adjudicator (Katie McGrath) and eerie sharpshooters Hansel (Mark Musashi) and Gretel (Marina Mazepa), The Continental’s true big bad comes in the form of Mel Gibson’s Cormac, the New York hotel’s local manager.
In a series that prominently features characters motivated by racial animosity and then endeavors you to see those same characters as people simply fighting to survive, Gibson stands out and pulls focus in a deeply negative way that isn’t the case with his fellow cast members. Cormac is meant to be something akin to the kind of menacing, avuncular presence that Ian McShane’s take on an older Winston has been in the John Wick movies, and The Continental similarly positions him at the center of its story.
For the most part, McShane has been able to get by playing Winston as essentially a heightened, more melodramatic version of himself. But Gibson’s attempt at taking the same approach to Cormac consistently falls flat both because of the actor’s personal scandals and because of how The Continental frames Cormac as the kind of villain who sees other people — particularly people of color — as beneath him or things to be owned and traded.
The Continental doesn’t work to make you see Cormac as much of a sympathetic figure. But it’s through him that the series heaps the most baggage onto a young Charon (Ayomide Adegun), and their entire dynamic is one of the most iffy things about the show that ultimately takes away more than it brings to the table.
It’s a shame because, Gibson aside, The Continental’s table is set quite nicely and filled with a series of performances that would have been more than strong enough to carry each of the miniseries’ three hour-and-a-half-long episodes without his assistance. But rather than doing the sensible thing and steering clear of any unforced errors, The Continental puts a big one front and center to stunningly disastrous effect.
The Continental also stars Nhung Kate, Peter Greene, Jeremy Bobb, Katie McGrath, Ray McKinnon, and Adam Shapiro. The show premieres on September 22nd.