A young Winston Scott (Colin Woodell) fights for control of his favourite hotel in Lionsgate’s John Wick spin-off. Here’s our review of The Continental streaming now on Amazon Prime.
What do you watch a John Wick movie for? Is it for the intricately crafted, assassin-stuffed worldbuilding? The stylish, neon-drenched cinematography? Is it for the often imitated, never bettered ‘gun-fu’ action sequences, or is it just to stare happily at Keanu Reeves’ face for, in John Wick: Chapter 4’s case, three hours?
The Continental: From the World of John Wick in no small part captures what a lot of people love about the franchise. It might be missing a certain Mr Reeves, but the slick camera work, goofy setting and close-up views of people being shot in the face are all intact. In true Wickiverse style, too, the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense, but to a large extent that’s not really what we’re here for.
Then again, all those features make the choice to turn the origins of Ian McShane’s cucumber-cool hotel manager Winston into a three-part miniseries all the odder. Because while TV has been getting more and more film-y over the last decade or so, its strengths, I would still argue, aren’t usually things you’d associate with John Wick.
TV as a medium still does certain things very well. The longer runtime of a series vs a film makes it much easier to tell a longer, overarching story. The typically slower pacing allows a lot of room for detailed worldbuilding.
But while the John Wick franchise is beloved for its absurd, hyper-stylised universe of curiously organised assassins and ancient murder-cults, it’s a world that functions much better as a flavourful backdrop than a fully explored fantasy landscape in its own right. The John Wick franchise arguably works so well because it keeps up that sense of mystery, of complex traditions and McGuffins that add a nice bit of spice to what is essentially an excuse to watch Keanu beat people up for an extended period.
Here, the TV medium doesn’t really play to The Continental’s strengths. Set in 1970s New York in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, we follow a young Winston Scott (Colin Woodell, doing a remarkably believable impression of a young McShane) and his brother Frankie (Ben Robson) as they find themselves attracting the ire of Mel Gibson’s hotel manager, Cormac.
While there’s a nice novelty to seeing some John Wick staples – the political maneuverings of the High Table, increasingly odd assassins with their own fighting styles – transplanted into a different time, the 70s setting can’t help but feel largely incidental. When a large chunk of the action revolves around the interior of the iconic hotel, there’s not much room to play with the decade’s flavour beyond some old cars and an excellent soundtrack stuffed with 70s hits.
The fact that the series deliberately takes place in a universe far removed from our own also makes the constant references to the end of the Vietnam war feel a little forced. It’s as if the team googled ‘what happened in 1975’ and peppered the first result into the script to give it some flavour. Combined with a pretty messy plot that feels a bit hemmed in by the three-episode format, The Continental feels like a show that never quite knows what it wants to be.
In a way, it might have been more successful divorcing itself from the John Wick franchise altogether. A stylish, 70s-set neo-noir stuffed with assassins and a few great fight scenes would have felt like a refreshing treat. As it is, the story has to bend over backwards to set things up for the Wick films, and the series’ promise of non-stop action is something that TV – even big-budget stuff like this – just can’t ever deliver on.
There’s still plenty to like about The Continental, though – in true John Wick style, the whole thing is beautifully shot, with a penchant for long takes and wide shots that frequently marks it out as some of the best-looking stuff on TV. When the action does come – though it’s largely limited to the beginning and end of the first two episodes before the third turns into one extended fight sequence – it is brilliantly choreographed. It might not possess all the novelty and invention of the best scenes in the franchise, but it’s still pretty satisfying to watch.
But the overwhelming question I have after finishing The Continental is why this was made into a mini-series in the first place. A spin-off film could have delivered more of the series’ famous action sequences. A longer series would have given the plot more room to make the most of its unique setting. As it is, the finished product feels a little stuck in the middle. Perfectly entertaining, but in the battle of style vs substance, it’s lucky The Continental has style in spades.
The Continental is on Amazon Prime Video now.
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