1 of 6 | Colin Woodell stars in "The Continental: From the World of John Wick." Photo courtesy of Starz Entertainment
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 20 (UPI) -- The Continental: From the World of John Wick has gone through many changes since it was announced by Starz in 2018. Now premiering Friday on Peacock, the limited series has been whittled down to a lesser copy of the John Wick films.
Winston, played by Ian McShane in the movies, was never a man of action. The Continental presumes to explain how young Winston (Colin Woodell) became the manager of the New York Continental, a worldwide hotel chain for assassins, in the '70s.
Winston's brother, Frankie (Ben Robson), stole the coin press that makes the gold coins High Table assassins use to procure goods and services, like staying at the Continental. '70s Continental manager, Cormac (Mel Gibson), orders a search for Frankie and his accomplices.
So, Winston assembles his own team of assassins to take down Cormac. These include Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Lou (Jessica Allain), Yen (Nhung Kate) and Lemmy (Adam Shapiro).
The show's original plan to introduce a new, modern-day assassin parallel to Keanu Reeves' character sounded way more interesting than a prequel. This prequel is exactly the sort of story one would expect in a cheap straight-to-video entry.
It's sort of the same as John Wick, only with different characters and fewer resources. Wick faced colorful new opponents in each entry, too, but each one took the films to a new level.
The creators of The Continental do their best to deliver Wick-worthy action in the series. Frankie's escape with the coin press is an action-packed battle down the stairwell.
Lou fights off some of Cormac's thugs in the street. A fight in a phone booth is cool, and perhaps the series should have embraced more tight spaces if expansive ones weren't feasible.
Directing the first and third episodes, Albert Hughes tries to be ambitious with tracking shots and framing fights in reflections of shards of glass. Fight coordinators, who include veterans like Larnell Stovall and Roger Yuan, pepper fights with inventive moves, but never as elaborate as the films.
Action feels constrained throughout. No one can be as good as John Wick and they surely didn't have as much time to execute action sequences on a television schedule.
Allain and Nhung Kate in particular seem like quite capable fighters, and are assisted by doubles. Their fights seem to end just as they are showcasing their unique skills.
The story uses iconography from the films to lesser impact. Katie McGrath plays an adjudicator, like Asia Kate Dillon played in John Wick 3.
McGrath is a striking presence, especially covering her face with a mask, but her threats against Cormac simply retread mythology from the movies. Gibson does himself no favors playing Cormac as a one-dimensional screaming villain.
Each John Wick sequel invented new High Table protocol. While some fans grew tired of the unwieldy mythology by the fourth film, at least it kept moving the series forward and maintained a sense of mystery.
Like many prequels, The Continental explains things that were more interesting as mysteries. No one was wondering how the High Table presses the coins or how Winston got promoted to manager.
The Continental fails to make a case for why either of those backstories are interesting. The missing coin press is only a generic macguffin to attract myriad hitmen to The Continental, and then their battles are weak.
Charon, the concierge played by Lance Reddick in the movies, is working for Cormac in the '70s. While seeing Ayomide Adegun embody Charon is a delight, it's a long way to go to explain how Charon became Winston's right-hand man.
A cop, KD (Mishel Prada) investigating the Continental also exposes some of Winston's childhood misdeeds. The need to give him a stereotypical redemption arc again undermines the mysterious character.
Also, the series is also overloaded with period music from the '70s. The films had a few needle drops but never such obvious pop music.
The Continental uses '70s hits "Crimson and Clover," "La Grange," "New York Groove," "Without You" and more. It's so pervasive in the series, it's exhausting.
The Continental looks like the same location from the films, only much dimmer. The films were bright, neon extravaganza but the series looks like typical underlit television.
Without the films' creators or cast, it just feels like other people playing on their set. There is surely more life in the John Wick world, but this is its first misstep.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.