A John Wick backstory needs Keanu Reeves. 'The Continental' series gives it a go without him

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What’s a John Wick story without John Wick?

About what you’d expect: sleek, violent, middlingly fun, mired in impenetrable mythology and in sore need of a Keanu Reeves infusion.

You hate to throw around terms like “cash grab" because it doesn’t feel like that. But it doesn’t feel entirely not like that, either.

The Continental” is an origin story — the full title is “The Continental: From the World of John Wick.” Except that it’s from the world of John Wick, the way that Pabst Blue Ribbon is from the world of Cristal. They share some things in common and both have their charms, but come on. It’s hardly the same thing.

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Where can I watch 'The Continental?'

The three-part limited series streams on Peacock beginning Friday, Sept. 22.

And it’s not even the origin story of John Wick. Instead, it’s the tale of how Winston Scott, played in the John Wick movies by the great Ian McShane, came to run the luxury hotel where criminals and killers and worse can find safety — violence of any kind is not permitted there, which makes for some interesting bar conversations.

In this time frame, when Winston (Colin Woodell) is a young man (and in flashbacks, a street urchin), the hotel is run by Cormac (Mel Gibson, scuzzy and over the top, because why else would you bother to hire Mel Gibson?). Cormac is a religious, violent psychopath (not saying anything, not saying anything) who plucked young Winston and his brother Frankie (played by Ben Robson as an adult) from the streets and turned them into proper criminals.

But Winston and Frankie have grown estranged over the years. Frankie tries to pull off a job in the Continental that is bigger than he realizes, and soon Cormac kidnaps Winston, who is busy scamming his way through London, and brings him home to find his brother.

What Cormac wants is a coin press, the search for which becomes the focus of the series. But like Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, it’s what drives the story but isn’t really what it’s about.

The stage is set for some of the High Table mythology nonsense that the films delve into.

What’s important here is how Winston came to run the Continental. This involves various subplots, like KD, an avenging cop (Mishel Prada) with her agenda; Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and Lou (Jessica Allain), a brother and sister with a connection to Frankie and a LOT of guns; Yen (Nhung Kate), Frankie’s girlfriend, and more.

It’s a lot to keep up with, but it’s all connected, however loosely. For all that, however, there are some important missing pieces.

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What's missing is Keanu Reeves and Ian McShane

An obvious thing is the lack of balletic violence in the John Wick films. “John Wick: Chapter 4” is as much a deadly dance movie as an action film.

Here the violence is clunkier, and the set pieces are not as jaw-dropping.

With a couple of exceptions. There’s a scene in which Lou takes on a literal truckload of neighborhood thugs that would be right at home in the big-screen versions. It’s shot from just the right angles, and the choreography is spot-on. So, too, is a showdown between Yen and Gretel (Marina Mazepa), one of the nut-case criminals staying at the Continental. (Her twin brother is named, yes, Hansel.)

How many episodes will 'The Continental' be?

Granted, the series is only three episodes, but it would have been nice to meet more of the villains staying at the hotel.

When Cormac activates the red light, meaning violence is allowed, and the residents come streaming out of their rooms, hungry for blood, it should be more entertaining than it is, an opportunity for some creative depravity. But it’s mostly just a bunch of generic combat.

What’s missing, however, is obvious: Reeves, McShane and the other stars who make the John Wick films so wildly entertaining.

Woodell is perfectly fine as the smooth-talking hustler who would become the ringmaster of the Continental, even if he doesn’t have the air of danger McShane always exudes. (Or maybe I just watched too much “Deadwood.”)

How the character makes that leap isn’t shown here, or at least not in a fully satisfying way. Maybe that’s what sequels are for. If it were a standalone series, this would be good and worth watching. But when you add “John Wick” to the title, we expect a lot more.

How to watch 'The Continental'

Streaming on Peacock on Friday, Sept. 22.

Reach Goodykoontz at bill.goodykoontz@arizonarepublic.com. Facebook: facebook.com/GoodyOnFilm. X, formerly known as Twitter: @goodyk.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'The Continental' on Peacock is a John Wick mini-series with no Wick