‘The Continental: From the World of John Wick’ Review: Mel Gibson Sours an Otherwise Serviceable Spinoff

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John Wick’s name might be the one in all the titles, and his face the one on all the posters. But as any John Wick fan could tell you, the appeal of John Wick has never been solely about its leading man. Just as essential to its enduring popularity has been the universe it’s built over four features: one populated by elite assassins and guided by arcane rules, cast in perpetually moody lighting just beneath the surface of our mundane reality.

Whether that setting in itself is enough to mint new (anti)heroes and sustain new leads is the meta question at the heart of Peacock’s The Continental: From the World of John Wick, a John Wick-less sequel set decades before Keanu Reeves ever snarled, “I’m thinking I’m back.” And though it seems more a test of concept than a complete saga, it’s a tentatively successful one — though with one major misstep that’ll be enough to ruin the whole experiment for many.

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As spinoffs go, The Continental, developed by Greg Coolidge, Kirk Ward and Shawn Simmons, aims for an approachable balance. It’s an expansion of already established lore around the titular hotel — but finds enough breathing room in its 1970s setting to deliver a story that requires no prior buy-in. It centers on Winston Scott, the suave hotelier played by Ian McShane on the big screen — but grants Colin Woodell, playing a younger version, enough substantive material to make the silver-tongued, gold-hearted character his own. (Woodell does do a nice job of capturing McShane’s mannerisms and gravel voice, for what it’s worth.) It situates him among a roster of mostly brand-new characters worth enjoying in their own right, regardless of whatever ties they might or might not have to the ones we already know.

Like John Wick’s, Winston’s bloody quest is steeped in a dark past he thought he’d left behind; he’s a London con man sucked back into the New York crime scene because of a deadly dispute between his big brother, Frankie (Ben Robson), and the gangster who practically raised them, Cormac (Mel Gibson, about whom more later). Naturally, the only path forward for Winston is to punch and slice and shoot his way through the underworld that Cormac rules over, on the way to capturing the assassins-only hotel that serves as the seat of his power. While The Continental’s action isn’t at the level of the movies’, it’s still above average for TV, with intricate choreography, athletic stunt work and camerawork fluid enough to show off both. The blood sprays and great big chunks of squishy red flesh that tend to follow are just the icing on this gleefully violent cake.

Likewise, though New York might look a lot smaller this time around — the omnipresent smog can only do so much to hide the fact that entire neighborhoods in The Continental look no bigger than a studio backlot — it’s one awash with style. Outside is a grimy city lined with trash and dotted with condemned structures, some of which contain their own tantalizing secrets. Inside the Continental is old-fashioned opulence juxtaposed with flamboyant weirdness, like an Adjudicator (Katie McGrath) who conceals the lower half of her face with a crazed porcelain mask, or a pair of sadistic twins (Marina Mazepa and Mark Musashi) in matching haircuts that fall somewhere between “Lord Farquaad in Shrek” and “Claire in the second season of Fleabag.” It’s all very silly, and only becomes more fun to watch the less any of it resembles real-world sense.

But there are a few caveats to The Continental’s wins. The more bearable one is its format. The series spans three heavily serialized episodes of roughly 90 minutes each, which positions it in a frustrating middle ground between a too-long movie and a too-short TV season. It takes the entire feature-length premiere to get to the core premise of Winston trying to topple Cormac’s rule, and most of the feature-length finale to play out the bullet-riddled climax. In between, there’s not quite enough time to flesh out the promising ensemble with the care they deserve.

The chemistry is there. I enjoyed the hint of flirtation between Winston and one of his new allies, karate gym proprietress Lou (Jessica Allain), and the nascent friendship between Winston and Charon (Ayomide Adegun, playing a younger, more wide-eyed version of Lance Reddick’s concierge from the films). The bits we get of the characters’ backstories are intriguing, too. The series probably could have filled several hours just unpacking the complicated family dynamics among Lou, her brother Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and their later father, or the star-crossed romance between Vietnam vet Frankie and his ex-Khmer Rouge wife, Yen (a kick-ass Nhung Kate). That it doesn’t may be an attempt to keep audiences hungry enough to clamor for more episodes. But The Continental is billed as a “three-part event,” rather than a first season, which gives the impression of a network being afraid to commit.

Perhaps that has a little something to do with The Continental’s other, much bigger red flag, which comes in the form of its top-billed star. In a vacuum, Gibson might be a perfectly reasonable choice of household name to play the scenery-chewing villain whose intensity outpaces his actual screen time. But The Continental does not exist in a vacuum. It’s being released into a reality where Gibson’s history of racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, abusive behavior has been well documented. In that reality, the sight of Gibson hurling cruel insults or unleashing his violent temper is hardly the stuff of escapist action fantasy. His presence lends a sour note that many viewers will find outright intolerable — which defeats the purpose of casting such a recognizable face to begin with. The Continental is otherwise a decent start to John Wick’s expansion plans. One only hopes future installments will be a bit more selective about whom they let in through those storied doors.

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