Young John Wick. That feels like the obvious idea if you were asked to pitch a TV prequel for the film franchise in which widowed hitman Keanu Reeves goes on an endless murder spree after a feckless gangster kills his puppy. How did Wick fare on his first assignment? When did he meet the love of his life? Why does he dress like the world’s most lethal snooker pro? All tantalising questions that could be explored by a youthful Keanu lookalike.
Instead, we have The Continental and its clunky subtitle. This three-parter is built around the imposing New York hotel established in the Wick-verse as a swanky crash pad for assassins, crooks and kingpins. Bad guys get to sleep easy on neutral ground and they all settle their minibar bills with a bespoke underworld currency of chunky doubloons. It is essentially a Marriott for Judas Iscariots.
In the films, the Continental is overseen by Ian McShane’s rakish manager Winston, with the late Lance Reddick as his majordomo, Charon. In this 1970s-set prequel, we see how their younger selves – played by Colin Woodell and Ayomide Adegun – forged their double-act. Woodell’s young Winston is a dapper London grifter long estranged from his New York roots; Adegun’s Charon is a recent immigrant already working at the Continental, reacting to the spittle-flecked whims of manager Cormac.
Cormac is played by Mel Gibson, which gives this movie spin-off some otherwise lacking movie star wattage. But at what cost? Even though Cormac is volatile and venal, and given some truly terrible dialogue to chew through – while terrorising staff, he riffs on the name of his establishment to make an incontinence joke – casting an actual villain as its main antagonist feels like an attempt to give the Continental some real-life edginess it doesn’t really need.
But initially, the focus is on Winston’s very capable brother, Frankie (Ben Robson), an army veteran turned gang enforcer who attempts a risky robbery amid a banging New Year’s Eve disco party. Frankie’s trigger-happy escape – where he wastes countless henchmen and pulls the very Wickesque move of chucking an emptied pistol at someone’s head – feels like an early statement of intent. Even if the Continental cannot hope to match the sheer relentlessness of the movies, it can still stage a decent action set-piece.
Frankie has lifted an item that could upend the vast criminal ecosystem that, we are informed, “predates the Roman empire”. Cormac will do anything to reclaim it, and forcibly recruits Winston to track down his fugitive brother. This pushes Winston into the orbit of some sketchy known associates from his youth, the prickly local cops and his brother’s gun-running war buddies who operate out of a rundown karate dojo. The willowy Winston is smart but not exactly intimidating to these NYC toughs; everyone makes fun of his ascot. (“It’s a cravat,” he insists.)
That a mismatched Team Winston will be assembled to turn the tables on Cormac and storm the Continental seems assured. It is simply a question of how many brawls, high-octane gunfights and strange supporting characters – such as Katie McGrath’s frosty masked Adjudicator, who seems to have dropped in en route to a Mortal Kombat tournament – it will take to get there. Apart from a glimpse of his beloved muscle car, the nods to franchise daddy John Wick himself are refreshingly light.
Other recent small-screen spin-offs that have attempted to channel movie popularity without a whiff of their lead – such as the Jason Bourne-less spy series Treadstone or the TV origin story for Liam Neeson’s Taken franchise – have come and gone without fanfare. The Continental has enough swagger to make a more compelling case for itself, elevated by its oddball ensemble, quirky period production design and a hardworking soundtrack of soul and classic disco. It feels akin to Sky Atlantic’s Gangs of London or Netflix’s Daredevil: a stylised exercise in pulp but one tightly mapped out to avoid the pitfall of mid-season bloat.
That is when the unusual launch strategy snaps into focus: three roughly 90-minute episodes, released on Fridays. The Continental knows its target audience of action junkies who grew up renting Van Damme or Chuck Norris movies every weekend for a short, sharp hit. Like Wick himself, it does the job efficiently and with a dash of wit: all killer and considerably less filler.
•The Continental: From the World of John Wick launches on Peacock in the US and Prime Video in the UK and Australia on 22 September, with new episodes weekly.