3 out of 5 stars

Recent film-to-TV spin-offs have sounded like terrible ideas from the start; more like cynical brand exploitation than a real opportunity to deliver something worthwhile. Remember the short-lived TV series Taken (2017–18) without Liam Neeson, or the Jason Bourne spin-off Treadstone (2019) without Jason Bourne? Probably not, as most viewers steered clear. And even the shows that almost worked—like the Superman-less prequel Krypton (2018–19) about his alien ancestors, or the Batman-less Pennyworth (2019–2022) focused on butler Alfred’s younger days in Swingin’ Sixties London— rarely last more than a few years. Strangely, however, studios keep returning to this well to exploit valuable IP, so here comes a John Wick prequel without John Wick…

The Continental instead explores the backstory of Winston Scott (Ian McShane), the stern but suave owner of the titular hotel where assassins are forbidden to kill on-site but can use the building as a haven. Set in the 1970s, we find a younger Winston (Colin Woodell) working in London selling parking to wealthy clients, only to be called back to his native New York after his older brother Frankie (Ben Robson) becomes a marked man after stealing a valuable coin press from The Continental—in this era run by venal kingpin Cormac (Mel Gibson), with assistance from his reserved majordomo Charon (Ayomide Adegun, as a teenage version of the late Lance Reddick’s character).

The good news is The Continental knows it won’t be a seven-season success, so it’s instead a three-part miniseries designed to enrich the John Wick mythology while exploring a few side characters fans may have questions about. So while it doesn’t seem to make sense to make a John Wick TV show without Keanu Reeves, I appreciate them not taking the obvious path of a “Young John Wick” series with him training to become an assassin; even if that sounds more exciting than learning how Winston came to run a hotel.

The miniseries has a mixed pedigree. It’s been developed by Greg Coolidge — who wrote Ride Along (2014) and directed the sports comedy The Turkey Bowl (2019)—alongside Kirk Ward and Shawn Simmons. Coolidge seems an odd choice Lionsgate simply have faith in, but then the director of the first and last episodes is the altogether more exciting prospect of Albert Hughes— who co-directed Menace II Society (1993) and From Hell (2001) with his brother Allen. 

Hughes hasn’t directed a movie since Alpha (2018), after which he transitioned to television and soon scored a critical hit with The Good Lord Bird (2020). The Continental benefits from having his eye on this pulpy material, so while he’s not a renowned action director (which one would imagine a John Wick series requiring), it seems he was hired to sell viewers on the show’s alternate 1970s milieu of gang warfare and John Wick’s “secret underworld” vibes.

For that reason, The Continental plays less like a John Wick prequel and more like an American take on Gangs of London. It’s pleasingly grim and violent whenever it needs to be, and the first episode sets up the story in an efficient way that made me forget there’s a distinct lack of action for something taking place in Wick-world. An opening robbery in “Brothers in Arms” involves similar gun-fu, but The Continental doesn’t have the money or filmmaking prowess to go toe-to-toe with the likes of John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023).

But it seems to know this and plays to its strengths as more of a Peaky Blinders (2013–2022) with added soul and disco music. Even so, it felt like a miscalculation for the second episode (“Loyalty to the Master”) to be almost bereft of violence, in a misguided attempt to make us care for a bunch of secondary characters whose roles aren’t compelling in and of themselves— like city cop KD (Mishel Prada) on the trail of Winston and his brother, or gunrunner Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and his martial artist sister Lou (Jessica Allain). Director Charlotte Brändström was seemingly handed this bridging episode to deepen our attachment to several people introduced in the first part, but it’s a thankless task ahead of the resolution.

Fortunately, the last episode (“Theater of Pain”) almost entirely revolves around action as Winston and his team infiltrate the Continental in the hope of taking it away from Cormac’s control, leading to plenty of brutal fights and shoot-outs in the hallways, kitchens, elevators, basement, and roof of the premises. (Which is obviously against standard protocol.) Some of these sequences are great fun, and I especially enjoyed the presence of two Goth-y siblings in black leather trenchcoats , ‘The Twins’ (Mark Musashi, Marina Mazepa) , who are the sort of bizarre enemies John Wick might encounter. Although styling Mark Musashi as oddball ’80s stand-up Emo Phillips does lead to unintentional laughter.

Colin Woodell has the unenviable task of matching what Ian McShane brought to the role as Winston, and he does manage to feel like a younger McShane regarding his mannerisms and line readings. I don’t understand why Winston is now an American who only spent time in London (where he developed an Englishman’s taste for a cravat), when it seemed clear McShane was British in the films. But Woodell is a solid enough actor and his relationship with his fugitive brother works well, in the knockabout way one expects of Guy Ritchie characters.

The cast is unknowns, character actors (Pulp Fictions Peter Greene as Uncle Charlie), or low-tier TV stars (Merlin’s Katie McGrath as the masked ‘Adjudicator’), except former Hollywood megastar Mel Gibson as gruff hotelier Cormac. The actor’s problematic life is online for everyone to reacquaint themselves with, so casting him was an avoidable distraction. Gibson does his best with some ripe dialogue, and still has a screen presence it’s hard to deny—and he’s been fine-tuning “tough old bastard” roles in recent years—but his role in this will be a turn-off for many. If Gibson was hired simply to make the show feel dangerous and edgy, that’s a risk it feels unwise to have taken.

The Continental may disappoint those expecting a triple dose of John Wick-level thrills, but if you enjoy the movie’s lore and have a curiosity about how the hitman’s hotel of choice came to be run by Winston, this show should likely satisfy. And it helps that it doesn’t try to emulate the movies too much and inevitably fail without Keanu and a larger budget, but instead feels like a big city 1970s crime story that just happens to take place in… well, “The World of John Wick”. Only with plenty of double-tap headshots along the way.


Cast & Crew

writers: Greg Coolidge, Kirk Ward, Shawn Simons & Ken Kristensen (based on ‘John Wick’ by Derek Kolstad).
directors: Albert Hughes & Charlotte Brändström.
starring: Mel Gibson, Colin Woodell, Mishel Prada, Ben Robson, Hubert Point-Du Jour, Nhung Kate, Jessica Allain, Aymomide Adegun, Jeremy Bobb & Peter Greene.