When John Wick came out in 2014, it was far from a sure thing: Keanu Reeves was mired in the worst slump of his career, the film’s first-time directors were complete unknowns with a background in stunt work, and the entire premise was predicated on the crushing death of a puppy. But the very qualities that made John Wick such a risky proposition in Hollywood—so much so that only one distributor put in an offer for it—worked to its advantage. With fight sequences inspired by Hong Kong–style martial arts and the depiction of a byzantine assassin underworld that featured its own form of currency, John Wick was unlike anything else in Western action cinema. The film became a word-of-mouth hit, and the rest is history.
A slew of imitators soon followed, and John Wick emerged as a franchise in its own right—every sequel would make use of a bigger budget to rack up massive body counts and put Reeves’s action star bona fides to the test. (The Baba Yaga uses every tool at his disposal to dispatch nameless henchmen: pencils, nunchucks, the hind legs of a horse, and so much more.) But the strongest indicator of John Wick’s impressive staying power came down to the numbers: Each successive sequel earned more money at the box office. (In all, the films have grossed more than $1 billion.) You don’t need to be a studio executive to understand that a franchise that continues growing in popularity will be given every opportunity to expand its cultural footprint, whether it’s with additional sequels, spinoffs, or prequels. There’s just one problem: Is there any appeal to the world of John Wick without its title character?
In the action-packed climax of John Wick: Chapter 4, our vengeful assassin emerges victorious in his duel against the Marquis de Gramont (Bill Skarsgard), a member of the Illuminati-esque High Table, which controls the franchise’s criminal underworld. Unfortunately, the wounds that John sustains during the duel appear to be fatal: The movie ends with Winston (Ian McShane) and the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne) standing over his grave. While there’s just enough ambiguity to suggest that John could still be alive, Reeves and director Chad Stahelski seem content with putting the character to rest. Of course, Lionsgate has other ideas for its cash cow: During an earnings call in May, studio executive Joe Drake confirmed that a fifth John Wick is in early development. The whole situation is pretty awkward—as much as Lionsgate wants another movie in the main series, it’ll ultimately come down to whether Reeves is on board with the idea. (It’s also hard to imagine the actor committing to a fifth film without Stahelski, who directed all four films and whose relationship with Reeves goes back to when he worked as his stunt double on The Matrix.) But while John Wick 5 remains in limbo, fans can be sated by the franchise’s first stab at a TV series. It’s time to check into The Continental.
The three-part limited series—each episode is feature-length—endured a turbulent journey to the small screen. The Continental (which sports the ungainly subtitle From the World of John Wick) was originally in the works at Starz—the premium cable network owned by Lionsgate—with Stahelski slated to direct the first episode and Reeves expected to make a cameo. A lot’s changed since then: The Continental was moved to Peacock, original showrunner Chris Collins was replaced, and the series was revealed to be a ’70s-era prequel. As a result, Reeves’s cameo was scrapped, while the show’s directorial duties were passed on to Albert Hughes and Charlotte Brandstrom. If that weren’t chaotic enough, The Continental also raised eyebrows with the casting of Mel Gibson, whose laundry list of controversies is a needless distraction from any project. But even with all these red flags, the series deserves to be judged on its own merits after the movies amassed so much goodwill.
The Continental serves as an origin story for Winston (now played by Colin Woodell), who runs the New York branch of the hotel chain in the films. (The hotels are a notorious safe haven for assassins working under the High Table; killing is forbidden on Continental grounds.) Providing an elaborate backstory for a prim hotelier wouldn’t be my idea for extending the John Wick universe, especially when living up to McShane’s performance is an impossible task for any actor. But in trying to preserve the John Wick DNA within The Continental, the series homes in on a familiar theme: revenge. (A quick aside for animal lovers: I’m pleased to report that no dogs were harmed this time.) The show establishes the backgrounds of Winston and his brother, Frankie (Ben Robson), who grew up on the streets of New York, willing to do whatever it takes to survive. The siblings’ predicament makes them the perfect pawns for Cormac (Gibson), a local crime boss who manages The Continental. It’s a cruel trade-off: Cormac gets Winston and Frankie off the streets, but now they’re in his debt.
Fast-forward to the ’70s, and Frankie pulls off a successful heist from The Continental’s vault, swiping a coin press that produces the underworld’s currency. This leads Cormac to kidnap Winston, who’s been pulling off his own scams in London, so that he can track down his brother and retrieve the press. But finding Frankie is only half the battle: Winston is determined to take The Continental by force and vanquish the man who’s tormented him and his brother since childhood. In this potential suicide mission, Winston puts together a ragtag crew that includes a pair of Vietnam War veterans who served with Frankie and an aging sniper with prescription glasses. It’s not the most auspicious plan, but it’s the perfect setup for what should be The Continental’s biggest selling point: brutal, balletic fight sequences.
When it comes to action on the small screen, the current gold standard is Gangs of London, the comically gory crime drama coproduced by Sky Atlantic and AMC. The series was cocreated by Gareth Evans, the Welsh filmmaker responsible for the Raid movies, so it goes without saying that Gangs of London sets the bar quite high. (In its second season, a character uses someone’s head as a makeshift silencer to kill two henchmen without drawing further attention. I would nominate this show for approximately 40 Emmys.) One would hope that a John Wick series would rise to the occasion and perhaps even surpass Evans’s kinetic brand of carnage, but that’s the fatal flaw of The Continental: By and large, the action is a letdown. With the exception of a stairwell shoot-out early in the premiere, The Continental never comes close to matching the thrilling heights of the movies. It doesn’t help that the show’s primary directors didn’t even shoot the action themselves: By Hughes’s own admission, second-unit director Larnell Stovall handled the fight scenes, which should have been The Continental’s bread and butter.
Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a director delegating action sequences; Marvel has even made that part of its sales pitch to filmmakers. But the decision is downright puzzling in the context of The Continental, which exists only because the John Wick movies are responsible for some of the best action scenes of the past decade—when something is that integral to the project, find a director who knows what they’re doing. (Was someone like Sam Hargrave unavailable?) It’s particularly infuriating when these scenes are chopped to bits as an apparent stylistic choice: A car chase featuring what may well be John’s original Mustang skips through the action like it’s on a worn-out VCR tape. In another show, that would be forgivable; as an extension of John Wick, it’s immediately disqualifying.
Since every episode of The Continental is the length of a movie, there’s plenty of time away from the action to focus on character motivations and to build out the mythology of the High Table. But these qualities have never been the franchise’s strong suit: Every newcomer in The Continental is woefully one-dimensional, and with the exception of Gibson’s Cormac, nobody gets an opportunity to chew through the scenery. (We must never forget Fishburne shouting, “SOMEBODY PLEASE GET THIS MAN A GUN!” in John Wick: Chapter 2.) And while I’m sure there are fans out there who enjoy all the criminal underworld shenanigans, doubling down on them seems like a fatal miscalculation of what made John Wick so appealing in the first place—how it all hung on one man’s ruthless, single-minded quest for revenge.
With how much John Wick’s success is inextricably linked to its star, perhaps The Continental was always destined to underwhelm. Stahelski said it best: “You’re invested in John Wick because Keanu Reeves is John Wick.” If John is going to stay dead, then it feels like the franchise’s future is on shaky ground. Would that really be such a bad thing? Four movies that never took their foot off the gas is nothing to scoff at; instead of squeezing every last drop out of this IP, Lionsgate ought to spend a little more time looking for the next John Wick. In any case, there’s still one spinoff film already in the can: Ballerina, which stars Ana de Armas as a member of a New York ballet theater run by a Belarusian crime family. In true John Wick fashion, the movie hinges on de Armas’s character’s hunt for the people who killed her family, and since Ballerina is set before the events of Chapter 4, Reeves is making a cameo. The return of the Baba Yaga, however brief, is a welcome development, but if John Wick keeps trying to expand its universe without him, the franchise will only be shooting itself in the foot.