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The Continental’s Big Bad Problem

The Continental relies on Mel Gibson to give main baddie Cormac O’Connor depth and a suggested inner life — which he doesn’t.Photo: Katalin Vermes/Starz Entertainme

Spoilers follow for The Continental: From the World of John Wick, the third and final episode of which aired on October 6. 

The John Wick world is powered by maximalism: more guns, more bullets, more Keanu Keanu-ing. There’s an art to this, so that even when the series is employing high-powered headshots, dogs attacking men’s ********, or a hardcover book used to break someone’s neck, it also has a sense of grace. Most of these assassins and antagonists have well-sketched backstories that give them motivations past just ******; most of these performers are quietly confident, even dignified, as they chase John Wick around the world. The Continental’s sprint through a collection of action sequences in finale “Theater of Pain” is one of the few bits of franchise consistency the spinoff series gets right. But what this prequel can’t outrun is its biggest mistake and its most distracting deviation from the John Wick mode of stately villainy: Mel Gibson as baddie Cormac O’Connor.

Gibson is The Continental’s top-billed actor, and his O’Connor is meant to be a towering New York City titan who rose through the city’s murky organized-crime underground and has run the titular hotel for decades. The series is primarily about how brothers Winston and Frankie Scott, terrorized into O’Connor’s service as children, rise up against him, and that forward momentum means that the series doesn’t spend much time looking backward at how or why O’Connor became who he is. That avoidance is to the series’ detriment, since it means The Continental relies on Gibson to give the character depth — which he doesn’t. At no point does O’Connor feel like a man with a past or interiority; Gibson communicates no inner life. Rather, The Continental assigns O’Connor opinions, quirks, and dialogue that seem purposefully evocative of Gibson’s real-life meltdowns. Maybe that’s narrative shorthand, a way for The Continental to spend more time on its ’70s-era pastiche. But it also makes for a gross viewing experience in which The Continental encourages us to connect the dots to Gibson’s actual bad behavior instead of doing the work to make the character distinct, or at least more in line with the established tenor of John Wick.

Since Gibson’s public persona of rugged masculinity and devoted piety began to implode with his 2006 *****-driving arrest and accompanying antisemitic tirade, he has quite cannily used the next stage of his filmography to tweak his troublesome off-screen reputation, the qualities exhibited in those scandals taking on roguish yet principled tones in his post-2010 work. (See: Gibson as a violent vigilante cop ripping off drug dealers to support his family in Dragged Across Concrete, or as a fighter pilot breaking laws to bond with his estranged son in Daddy’s Home 2.) Gibson’s characters now tend to be defined by a capacity for cruelty, an often misguided belief in their own persecution, and a bullying sense of humor that relies on insulting others. It’s a tidy, uninspired formula that is intended to make viewers feel like they’re in on a joke Gibson is making about himself, and The Continental’s worst choice is not just accommodating this performative rut but catering to it.

The cadence and tone of Gibson’s line deliveries as O’Connor, all smirking jibes or hysterical yells, bring to mind the 2010 recordings in which he berated, threatened, and verbally abused his former partner Oksana Grigorieva. O’Connor’s overwhelming paranoia that everyone is working against him feels like an **** parallel to that 2006 arrest, which the arresting officer described as “belligerent,” and his 2012 altercation with screenwriter Joe Eszterhas. O’Connor smashing a golf club into an implied-to-be-*** character’s head and then beating him to death is the series’ most grotesque, drawn-out scene and summons memories of those times Gibson told Grigorieva that she needed “a ******* bat in the side of the head” and allegedly accused Winona Ryder’s *** friend of having AIDS. (Let’s also include when O’Connor cheekily describes himself as “hobo-phobic” and accuses other men of being “cucks” in this category.) And the character’s zealous Christianity and reliance on a combination of drugs he refers to as “my medicine” seem pulled from Gibson’s own past, too.

It’s impossible to say how many viewers remember all the ins and outs of Gibson’s legal issues, so maybe most of these comparisons don’t register. But O’Connor is so underwritten and Gibson’s shtick such a caricature of his own offenses that all these similarities accumulate into an atmosphere that’s obnoxiously odious, and not in a way that makes this character more convincing. Because Gibson never elevates O’Connor from parody to someone Winston calls the scariest man he’s ever seen, The Continental is never really as tense as it should be for the four-plus hours of viewer time it demands. There are so many other actors who could have invigorated O’Connor with nefariousness and complexity without also shoving their thumbs in our eyes at what they’re getting away with. (Some suggestions: Michael Wincott, Ron Perlman, Colm Meaney, Holt McCallany, Liam Cunningham, Paul Ben-Victor.) It’s not an offense for an actor to have a type and to nod at their real-life identity with their fictional work. What is offensive, though, is how The Continental was satisfied with having Gibson do only that.

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