Why The Continental: From the World of John Wick is a kick ass antidote to COVID-19

Chances are you have seen a John Wick movie.

With its signature mix of martial arts, guns, brutal takedowns and a suited and booted Keanu Reeves, the bullet-filled movie franchise has spawned four action-packed films in under a decade, grossing a total of over US$1 billion at the global box office.

The franchise hasn't just confined itself to the big screen either.

It has spawned a computer game, comic books and now is on our small screens in the form of a prequel miniseries.

The Continental: From the World of John Wick is a three feature-length episodes that tell the background story of Winston Scott (played in the films by Ian McShane) and how he came to run the New York branch of The Continental hotels, a safe haven for assassins, frequented in the films by Reeves' John Wick.

Set in a parallel 1970s, the trio of episodes offer up what fans would expect - gun-fu, brutal action and stunts - but what attracted director Albert Hughes to the series was something very simple: fun.

"I guess for me, it was the playing in the sandbox of the John Wick Universe which Chad Stahelski established so well," he told Newshub.

"That and the fact I just realised that we are coming out of COVID, and I was just looking to escape and have fun - I thought the audience was looking for the same thing. It ended up being one of the funnest things I ever did, you know? 

"That's also because I didn't have to deal with, social issues, generational trauma and whatnot. What was lovely about the John Wick world is it kind of kicks ass."

While Hughes directed episodes one and three, Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power director Charlotte Brändström was behind the camera for episode two.

Effusive and bouncy, and thrilled to be talking to someone from Aotearoa ("New Zealand's my very favourite country in the world, I could have stayed forever"), she baulked at the idea of Winston and his loyal aide Charon being alive in the film franchise robbing the prequel of any tension.

The Continental's Winston is the hero of the piece.
The Continental's Winston is the hero of the piece. Photo credit: Supplied

"It's like when you do The Lord of the Rings, you know Galadriel is never going to die, or Isildur is going to be around - it's really about how they get there, it's not about the end. It's really what happens to them, what they go through, their emotional journey, I would say.  For Winston, it was a big emotional journey going through all this before the creation, obviously, of the Continental."

The John Wick franchise has not always been about just Reeves. In the films, supporting players come into their own, or have iconic fights. Ballerina, an Ana De Armas-led second spin-off set in between the events of John Wick: Chapter 3: Parabellum and John Wick: Chapter 4, is due in 2024 - and Brändström said half of the thrill of being involved was how it expands the world.

"It was a big ensemble cast - it's not only about Winston, it's really about everybody else that is around him and you don't know what's going to happen to those characters," she told Newshub.

"There are a lot of very interesting, a lot of really badass kickass women, strong woman characters, very good at fighting, and there was a lot around there."

One character who makes their presence very known is Mel Gibson.

Mel Gibson makes the most of his appearance in the John Wick TV series.
Mel Gibson makes the most of his appearance in the John Wick TV series. Photo credit: Supplied

As the Continental's current owner Cormac, Gibson plays the villainous kingpin with more gusto than you would expect from the reserved presence McShane brought to the films.

While some people are less than happy with Gibson's appearance in the series due to various real-life indiscretions, Hughes thinks his presence helps ramp up the stakes.

"He's a little twisted, you know? I think every John Wick character is a bit, let's say, kind of good, but it's varying degrees of how bad they are," Hughes said.

"John Wick himself is an assassin - you think, 'oh, my God, it's scary'. But people love that character. On our TV series, there is a greatness to all these characters, but I would say Cormac is the most shady of the bunch with very, very loose morals and rule of law. He's kind of his own little dictator in that building in the 1970s. You know that famous quote, 'absolute power corrupts absolutely'."

Hughes told Newshub Gibson had a very "egalitarian" approach to the role and spent time on set watching even when he was not part of a scene.

"Me and the showrunner Kirk Ward grew up on those movies that he was in. And we just wanted that kind of passion and energy for this role. So he fits the bill perfectly."

Music also plays a large part in the tightly-choreographed action during all three episodes. Hughes himself was responsible for many of the "needle drop moments" during the series after bringing a playlist to the planning and execution of the action.

"I grew up biracial, with my mother listening to Creedence Clearwater and Pink Floyd, and my father listening to James Brown, and I've never had the opportunity to bring both of these together," he said.

"New York is very multicultural and with several sounds and smells from all these cultures and I went 'Oh my God, this is a wonderful opportunity to introduce all these amazing groups from the seventies'. These needle drops play a role in the story. In a way, they also make it easier to absorb hardcore violence and to let the audience know that we're winking and nodding and saying, 'We're here to have fun'. And this is not reality. It is drama, it is humour."

1970s style is front and foremost in The Continental.
1970s style is front and foremost in The Continental. Photo credit: Supplied

But for many, the pull of Wick's world is the endless gun-fu and action sequences. When you think of John Wick: Chapter 4, you think of the long slog at the Sacré-Cœur stairs in France, or the ass-kicking across the lanes outside the Arc de Triomphe.

For The Continental's action director Larnell Stovall, the mild-mannered, carefully spoken member of 87eleven (the stunt team who have worked with John Wick director Chad Stahelski throughout), the pressure was on from the beginning.

"There's always the intimidation because you're coming from the John Wick world, which everybody knows and loves. When you don't have a character like John Wick, you have to make sure that the action stands on par with that world. You take each character and make sure you develop them properly, whatever actions they're going to do, and you want to execute it so that people say 'OK John Wick's not here, but I feel his presence in this world'."

Stovall told Newshub he believes two characters - a pair of assassins named Hansel and Gretel - are destined to emerge from the show as the latest John Wick cosplay icons.

The Continental's twins seem inspired by another Keanu Reeves' action film.
The Continental's twins seem inspired by another Keanu Reeves' action film. Photo credit: Supplied

"I give credit to Albert [Hughes] on that one. The casting, the unique vision, the way he picked them and the way he dressed them all came from his mind.

"But the great thing about it was I knew one of them - the guy who plays Hansel. Marc Musashi, is a friend of mine. I was just so happy to see him step into that. The way he played it as this silent, less is more type of attitude that resonated throughout each episode - it was so smart, the way they built them up. They left a lasting impression every time. I think those two characters are going to be cosplay for years to come. Got that feeling," he chuckled.

Hughes told Newshub overseeing the plethora of action sequences in the series was just a job that he didn't always enjoy in the planning stages.

"It's so involved and so technical in ways, it's not a fun thing for me, you know? But what was fun about this was there were small modules of action. I like the kind of action that's more like Sergio Leone, who was not an action director either, right? It's all about the buildup of tension and then this small release of violence, basically."

Asked by Newshub if he was tempted to let loose with a few rounds of the gun-fu himself to relieve the tension, Hughes smiled coyly before laughing at the suggestion.

"If there's an actor you don't like, you want to be [on set] there. And you know what? I like them all. No, I never wanted to be in front of the camera. My nose is way too big for that!"

The Continental: From the World of John Wick is streaming now on Prime Video.