What to watch: John Wick gets a shot on TV — and it works

What to watch: John Wick gets a shot on TV — and it works

This week brings the arrival of one of the most anticipated streaming series of the fall — Peacock’s three-episode “The Continental: From the World of John Wick.” We take a look at it and see if it’s worth a look minus the presence of Keanu Reeves.

We also weigh in on two documentaries with Bay Area connections: the inspiring “26.2 to Life,” about a running club at San Quentin State Prison, and Paramount+’s “Superpower,” which focuses on former Marin County resident Sean Penn’s meetups with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and how those face-to-face encounters affected him.

Here’s our roundup.

“The Continental: From the World of John Wick”: When it was announced that a three-part TV prequel was planned for the bloody and lucrative action/revenge John Wick film franchise (over $1 billion at the box office) without its charismatic star Keanu Reeves, there was just cause for worry. Would we get stuck with yet another lame origin story that would amount to no more than an empty-calorie cash grab; or an obsessively convoluted bout of worldbuilding that only diehard fans can hope to make sense of?

Breathe a sigh of relief, Wick fans, and the Wick curious. Peacock has done the hitman a solid.

The Peacock miniseries created by Greg Coolidge, Kirk Ward and Shawn Simmons is a Gotham-looking neo-noir epic that’s set in a down-on-its-heels and dirty New York of the ‘70s, where a garbage collectors’ strike piles rubbish on the streets while inside the swanky, monolithic-looking Continental hotel — a fixture in the Wick universe — assassins and fat cats gather.

This tidily told tale begins as a story about two estranged brothers, both survivors of a harrowing childhood that found them sleeping in a car trunk. The kids made some extra coin by doing killer jobs for bellowing mob figure monster Cormac (Mel Gibson going complete Nicolas Cage-like unhinged here).

As it turns out one of those brothers happens to be Winston Scott (San Francisco native Colin Woodell), who eventually becomes the proprietor of the assassin-friendly Continental hotel chain, played by Ian McShane played him in the films.

The series opens with a 20-something Winston as a successful and shrewd businessman in London, and then getting summoned like a Corleone so he can help his in-jam brother Frankie (Ben Robson) retain his tight hold on a coveted coin press that he snatched from Cormac’s The Continental Hotel.

The theft leads to bloody martial arts smackdowns, Hansel and Gretel assassins with bad hairdos, an appearance of a masked figure who outranks Cormac and is called the Adjudicator (part of the film series), and a dojo in Chinatown.

To disclose further details about these three Gothic-to-the-gills episodes — the look of the series could easily compete mano-a-mano with most Hollywood blockbusters – would be criminal. We can say that director Albert Hughes (the first and last episodes) and Charlotte Brandstorm (the second one) keep the action and storyline lean and mean, and the body count high, allowing us to soak up every second of these 90ish-minute episodes.

Wick devotees will walk away satisfied by the violent history of not merely the hotel featured in the title but the two prominent figures who inhabit Wick’s World — Winston, naturally, and Cormac’s loyal assistant/hotel concierge Charon (Ayomide Adegun) who later bonds with John Wick. Both actors are so good in these pivotal parts that they make us want to book early for another rowdy “Hotel” weekend stay.

As for the problematic Gibson and his history of misogyny antisemitism, the creators and directors are well aware he represents a controversial casting, but insist he proved perfect for the role of Cormac. As Hughes has said, he can “appreciate a person who knows what he’s doing in front of the camera and behind it.” Details: 3½ stars out of 4; Part I streams Sept. 22, Part II streams Sept. 29 and Part III streams Oct. 6; Peacock+.

“26.2 to Life”: Documentaries that purport to inspire and exalt you to want to stand and cheer don’t always deliver on that promise. Some overstate; others seem too calculated about their intentions. Christine Yoo’s hopeful nonfiction feature strikes the right balance in telling the stories of San Quentin inmates who are participating in the prison-supported 1,000 Mile running club. Appropriately it gets told from their perspective and from head coach Fred Ruona, who, along with others, help the men train and remain motivated to run a marathon (26.2 miles) at the prison. But instead of hills and streets and nature, runners such as Markelle “The Gazelle” Taylor run in circles, confronting the daunting physical and psychological challenge of doing 105 laps inside the Northern California prison. Yoo takes us into the lives of a few inmates and has us meet their families. She also addresses the crimes they committed and the interior work they are doing as some attempt to return to society as changed men. It’s a stirring and rousing feature that shows the tough road ahead for inmates’ shot at redemption. Details: 3½ stars; opens in theaters Sept. 22.

“Superpower”: One of Marin County’s most famous former residents — Sean Penn, who resides now in Malibu — seems intent on entering treacherous places.  “Superpower” cements his resolve to be in the thick of things as the globe-trotting Oscar winner and crew visit Ukraine to make a documentary in the days before Russia’s invasion and then actually speak with charismatic President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Not just once, mind you, but twice amid a surge of Russian attacks.

Penn, who co-directs, ventures beyond his team’s derring-do, offering a comprehensive history on what came before this war. He also delves into Zelenskyy’s previous life as an entertainer and actor as well as his unlikely path to president. It gives the film more heft, more meaning.

Two documentaries have centered on Penn’s commitment to make a difference on the international scene. The first — 2020’s “Citizen Penn,” which was directed by the Bay Area’s Don Hardy — was a more even-keeled portrait, focusing on the actor’s devoted work helping rebuild Haiti after a devastating 7.0 earthquake in 2010. “Superpower,” however, suffers from Penn’s passionate idolization of Zelenskyy, making it feel like the documentary comes from a fan. But to underplay Penn’s adoration of Zelenskyy in this film would, in fact, be disingenuous. It’s obvious that Penn became in awe of the man and moved by his experience in Ukraine, so much so that he would even step onto the Fox News set to be interviewed by Sean Hannity — a polar opposite of the political values he represents. Is that ego tripping? Some say yes. Others no. And therein lies the hard haul ahead for “Superpower,” an undeniably intense and intriguing documentary that sheds as much light on Penn’s passion as on tenacity Zelenskyy. Details: 2½ stars; available now on Paramount+.

Contact Randy Myers at soitsrandy@gmail.com.