Why Is Mel Gibson in the “John Wick” Spin-Off?

It's disappointing to see the beloved franchise align itself with the controversial actor

October 13, 2023 6:27 am
Mel Gibson
Mel Gibson in "The Continental: From the World of John Wick"

A couple of months ago, I was reporting a story about the perilous moment that the streaming industry finds itself in, and why there are so many films and TV shows based on, well, older films and TV shows and well-known books and such. The short answer is that there is nothing a film studio or an entertainment company loves more than safe money and a sure thing, and if something is a proven winner, you can expect to see more of it, especially as the many, many (too many) streaming services out there compete for subscribers.

During the reporting of the piece, I talked to one producer who mentioned that if The Godfather were made today, it wouldn’t be enough to make one or two masterpieces. The industry would require multiple sequels, and a spin-off television series or two. I concede that, from a pure “gotta keep the stockholders happy because I will lose my job if profits don’t increase from quarter to quarter,” then yeah, this is almost certainly true. But when given this insight, I do the thing I sometimes do where I let my eyes unfocus and my jaw go limp so as to not make a stink face and then just slightly nod.

I’m pretty over the constant intellectual property mining that has defined Hollywood for the past two decades, and I bet you are as well. (Not sure if I’ll get around to finishing Marvel’s Secret Invasion anytime soon.) The under-performance this year of franchise installments Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania and The Flash and last year’s Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore might be a sign that we’re reaching some sort of IP fatigue, or least that the Marvel Effect is waning and people won’t automatically turn out for the latest film in a shared universe if said film has bad buzz. (And yes, franchises film can be good. Great, even. But we could use a break and some more original storytelling at this point, please.)

But it will probably take several more flops for Hollywood to move on from its “make everything a shared universe” phase, which brings us to The Continental: From the World of John Wick and next year’s Ballerina, a spin-off of the series featuring Ana de Armas. Now, in theory, I can see the thinking here. Created by Derek Kolstad, the John Wick series completely changed the action film genre when it premiered in 2014 with its mix of action that is as artfully choreographed as it is over-the-top and deadpan humor. While all four films have been carried by the steely charisma of star Keanu Reeves, the world around was nearly as elaborate as the fight scenes, filled with the intriguingly opaque (and silly in a fun way) by-laws of the assassin world that Wick and the people constantly trying to kill him operate in. Sure, there probably was room to explore the High Table that runs the criminal underground and The Continental, the hotel where they operate. This could have, in the right hands, made for an entertaining TV show, and perhaps even a hit for Peacock. (While NBC’s streaming app has some great shows, including the scabrous late capitalism satire Killing It, it could really use a hit. Do you know anyone who watched that Twisted Metal adaptation?)  

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But unfortunately, the makers of The Continental: From the World of John Wick (what a mouthful of a title) killed my potential interest right from the start by casting the disgraced actor Mel Gibson as crime boss Cormac O’Connor, the series’ main villain.

I watched the pilot episode, and while everything else from the action to the 1970s setting to the lead performances from Colin Woodell as a younger version of  Ian McShane’s character Winston Scott was more or less serviceable, I just couldn’t sink into the world of the show like I do with the films, because every time Gibson was on screen, I thought about the 2010 recording of him threatening to kill his former partner Oksana Grigorieva; Grigorieva has also accused Gibson of allegedly physically abusing her. I also couldn’t forget the time he went on an anti-Semitic rant following his 2006 drunk driving arrest or his long history of homophobic commentary. (I don’t feel like typing any of it; it’s all very easy to find.)

Gibson apologized for his 2006 comments and then sought treatment for alcoholism, and in 2011 he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge brought by an investigation from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department; part of the sentence included 52 weeks of counseling. 

I believe people can change, and I believe people can, sometimes and in some circumstances, redeem themselves if they put in the work and show genuine remorse and growth. I also believe people can also just say the right words, go away for a while and assume that most people will forget about what they’ve done, or will at least be a bit hazy on the particulars. I can’t claim to know what’s in Gibson’s heart, but I can say that the series’ choice to lean into Gibson’s real-world actions by making his character a paranoid crime boss gone to seed with a pronounced homophobic streak just feels gross. (I’m not sorry I missed the episode where he beats a queer-coded character to death with a golf club.) 

While there’s no denying that Gibson has been in some truly iconic action films, I don’t buy the idea that he’s so irreplaceably talented that we simply must have him back in our lives, especially when the producers could have cast so many other actors who specialize in playing grizzled old badasses. (Seriously, if you ever have an opportunity to cast Ron Perlman in a crime story, it’s practically malpractice not to do so.) Hollywood, you’re not obligated to give this man work, and you’re especially not obligated to remind us why he had to go away for a while. He’s really not the safe bet he was back in the day. (Gibson was not brought back for Chicken Run: Dawn of the Nugget, the sequel to the 2000 animated comedy he provided a voice for.) 

This latest attempt at a soft comeback for Gibson follows his Oscar-nominated 2016 film Hacksaw Ridge, and comes as Woody Allen’s latest film premiered at the 80th Venice International Film Festival, and as disgraced journalist Mark Halperin has begun inching his way back into public life, all signs that the performative outrage about “cancel culture” was really just whining from men who are mad they got caught and didn’t like it when people turned on them, and are now seeing if “accountability” was just one of those ‘10s fads. As many observers have said, the only people who can truly cancel you is your audience, and while Allen and Halperin might be able to have some semblance of a career, I feel safe saying they will never again breathe the rarefied air they once enjoyed. But Gibson keeps getting work and, surprisingly, Oscar nods. I’m not confident Hollywood won’t keep trying to make a comeback happen for him, but I am confident I won’t be buying tickets for his movies. 

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