How Saudi Arabia’s filmmakers hit their stride since the resumption of movie screening

Special How Saudi Arabia’s filmmakers hit their stride since the resumption of movie screening
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Special How Saudi Arabia’s filmmakers hit their stride since the resumption of movie screening
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The opening of theaters in the Kingdom has been widely welcomed by the Saudis, who used to flock to Bahrain or Dubai to for entertainment. (Photo Courtesy: Red Sea Film Festival)
Special How Saudi Arabia’s filmmakers hit their stride since the resumption of movie screening
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By 2030, the number of theaters in the Kingdom is expected to swell to 2,600. (AFP)
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Updated 01 May 2023

How Saudi Arabia’s filmmakers hit their stride since the resumption of movie screening

How Saudi Arabia’s filmmakers hit their stride since the resumption of movie screening
  • Box-office revenues in the Middle East have bounced back thanks in part to the success of Saudi cinema
  • Resumption of movie screening across the Kingdom has kindled great interest in production for the big screen

RIYADH: For 35 years, Saudis were deprived of the quintessential cinema experience — the giddiness of waiting in line to buy a ticket, the rising anticipation as the lights dimmed, and the thrill of watching movie trailers projected on the screen while munching on freshly popped corn kernels.

April 18 marked five years since the resumption of movie screening across the Kingdom for the first time since the 1970s. But the lifting of the ban has been about more than mere entertainment.

The power of Saudi cinema has revolutionized the film economy in the region, institutionalized a creative industry, and set the stage for generations of undiscovered talent, while celebrating the Kingdom’s identity.

A lot has happened since cinemas in the Kingdom reopened in 2018. (Arab News Archive)

Even before the reopening of domestic cinemas, a glimmer of hope came in the form of Haifaa Mansour’s 2012 film “Wadjda,” the first all-Saudi cast feature shot in Saudi Arabia.

Although the handful of screening venues in the Kingdom were highly censored at the time, the film still garnered international success, grossing millions in box office sales globally.

Mahmoud Sabbagh’s “Barakah Meets Barakah” made waves in 2016 with its commentary on conservatism in the guise of comedy, followed by Ayman Tamano’s horror film “Madayen,” and multiple other short and feature film ventures that blazed a trail for a new era of cinema.

Hollywood actor John Travolta attending a special event organized by the Kingdom's General Authority for Entertainment in Riyadh in 2017. (AFP)

When the ban was lifted in 2018, crowds flocked to cinemas to watch the iconic Marvel blockbuster “Black Panther,” transforming the way Saudis experience film to this day. 

Film producer Walaa Bahefzallah recalls attending a screening of “Aquaman,” marking her first visit to a movie theater.

“I got very emotional. I got chills and started tearing up, because I couldn’t help but think ‘Why did it take this long? What for?’” Bahefzallah told Arab News. “Cinema has created societies, changed rules, created heritage. Cinema initiated social and cultural movements.”

Walaa Bahefzallah (right), casting director of Saudi film Champions, alongside the cast at the 2021 Red Sea Film Festival, including Fatima Albanawi (center).  (Supplied)

Bahefzallah graduated from film school in 2010 at the top of her class, but had been working in the industry since 2007 in Egypt. In 2013 she established Rose Panthera, an experimental production company.

In addition to her many works, Bahefzallah has recently lent her talents as the casting director and production executive of the AlUla-shot Hollywood production “Kandahar,” set to premiere on May 6.

“Cinema was a late entry into Saudi society, so (the community) already had a specific taste in entertainment,” she said. “They were first opposed to Saudi-made content and we only found negative judgment, and most turned from viewer to critic. We can’t blame them.

The number of ticket sales in Saudi Arabia amounted to 30,860,956 for films in 22 languages ​​from 38 countries since 2018. (Social Media)

“Lately — after ‘Shams Al-Maaref’ (‘The Book of Sun’), ‘Abtal,’ ‘Sattar’ and ‘Alhamour H. A.’ — they realized there’s a new era of cinema being built and a one that speaks to our minds and our issues, in our own language and sense of humor — a cinema that understands us.”

According to the General Commission for Audiovisual Media, 31 Saudi films have been produced in the five years since the cinema ban was lifted.

These Saudi-made films include the family drama “40 Years and One Night,” the football comedy “Abtal” (“Champions”), the true-to-life “Shihana,” and the animated film “Masameer.”

Long gone are the decades of pay-per-view, stacks of foreign DVDs, improvised movie halls, underground screenings and travels to nearby countries, most notably Bahrain, for a weekend of binge-watching the latest releases.

And, just as cinema footfall and profits are in decline elsewhere in the world, box-office revenues in the Middle East and North Africa region have rapidly bounced back, largely thanks to the success of Saudi cinemas.


Entertainment chains currently operation in Saudi Arabia include VOX Cinema, AMC, Reel Cinemas and Muvi Cinemas.

Muvi Cinemas alone has 205 screens in 21 locations in 10 different cities.

However, it appears there is still an untapped market in the Kingdom. The highest-grossing film in Saudi Arabia to date, “Top Gun: Maverick,” sold an estimated 1.2 million tickets among a population of 35.95 million, which suggests only a fraction of the Saudi public are regularly visiting cinemas.

“With more films being produced and continuous success, there will be a higher demand,” Faris Godus, director and co-writer of “The Book of Sun,” told Arab News.

Muvi Studios is breaking records at the Saudi box office, with more than 1 million tickets sold for its two latest productions. (Supplied)

“Most people who went in to buy the first cinema tickets were considered early adopters, coming in with no expectations to try something new. But now they have precedents to compare films to.”

“The Book of Sun,” a production from The Godus Brothers’ Tape Productions, funded by the Red Sea Film Festival, was one of the first Saudi films to be screened in commercial cinemas. It was recently named the fourth most-attended Saudi film.

“The merit of cinema is the collective experience,” Godus said. “As human beings, we’re impacted by others. When we’re trying something new, it’s good to experience it collectively.

“When we watched ‘The Book of Sun’ in theaters, some people were laughing at lines or getting excited at parts I didn’t know would have that sort of impact. It created a first impression of the film that spread widely through word of mouth. It was great and I believe Saudi films are in need of this stage of engagement.”

Two young Saudi film directors have been presented with trophies after winning the second edition of a 48-hour filmmaking challenge. (AN Photo/Ali Khameq)

Indeed, Saudi filmmakers appreciate how cinema-going creates community bonds that allow them to draw feedback from their audiences. 

“This has allowed for a greater appreciation of Saudi’s diverse culture and storytelling, as well as increased opportunities for Saudi filmmakers to showcase their creativity, expand it, and export our culture, language, idioms, values and jokes to the world,” Saudi actress Summer Shesha told Arab News.

“Having the space that allows us to gather, laugh, cry and feel as one plays a significant role in shaping the way Saudi content is experienced and made.”

Shesha said that she cried when she heard the news that cinemas would reopen. She had taken part in her first feature film role in 2017’s “Exit 5,” but only ever saw it screened at festivals.

“Then experiencing watching my second feature ‘Kayan,’ directed by Hakeem Jomaa, in the theater among my friends, family and the audience is a feeling I will never forget,” she said.

Two young Saudi film directors have been presented with trophies after winning the second edition of a 48-hour filmmaking challenge. (AN Photo/Ali Khameq)

“It was surreal, to see my face on the big screen and hear and see the reaction of my people at the same time. This memory still gives me goosebumps.

“I was grateful to be a part of an industry that did not even exist, and that I believed in what I loved and did it anyway, to witness and contribute to this significant change.”

Saudi actress Ida Alkusay was studying abroad when she heard the news that cinemas were reopening in her home country.

“Ironically, I was studying film to be able to have movies shown on those big screens back home. Hearing that news made me feel like half of the battle was already won,” Alkusay told Arab News.

Prior to 2018, a role in a rising, yet premature, film industry was a pipedream for many aspiring actors. Supported by the Saudi Film Commission, which has worked to legitimize the local film industry and create job opportunities, there has never been a better time to pursue a career in Saudi cinema.

Saudi women study film making at a university in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia March 7, 2018. (REUTERS)

“Giving opportunities to talents and investing in filmmakers and local movies will pay off because we are here to create our legacy and document it,” Alkusay said. “Saudi Arabia is rich in heroic histories and this legacy should be celebrated and shared.”

The actress has landed multiple opportunities in the industry since returning home, including a role in MBC’s “Rise of the Witches,” the TV mini-series “Akher Riyal” (“Cut Off”), and a leading role in the 2021 horror film “Junoon,” which premiered in cinemas last October.

Brothers Maan B. and Talha B., the film’s producers, told Arab News: “Seeing your debut film being watched is something inspiring. When we studied film in 2013, we never thought this day would come.

“We think greater and bolder films will follow in the next five to ten years because the audience is smarter than you think and they want something both entertaining and thought-provoking, not something shallow they can watch for free in the comfort of their homes. This makes things more challenging for us filmmakers, as we are competing with streaming services and social media content.”

The opening of theaters in the Kingdom has been widely welcomed by the Saudis, who used to flock to Bahrain or Dubai to for entertainment. (Photo Courtesy: Red Sea Film Festival)

While streaming services are considered cinema’s biggest competitors, the re-emergence of movie theaters in Saudi Arabia has reawakened interest in filmmaking for the big screen.

Maan B., who also starred in and co-directed “Junoon,” said: “A lot of people who had that passion wanted to get back into the game.

“A lot of universities are helping with that by providing film or media majors highlighted in their programs, and it’s drawing a lot of attention from the newer generation.

“I envy the new generation. It’s all set up for them and they need to take advantage of it all — the opportunities, the support, the funds — to be recognized and do good work.”

The Saudi Film Festival highlights desert cinema in an interactive artwork inspired by the Tuwaiq mountains. (SPA)

Fahad Alqahtani was on the lookout for a hobby when he stumbled into acting. His first opportunity arose in Shahid’s original TV show “The Fates Hotel,” before later securing the lead role of Hamed in Saudi cinema’s latest release “Alhamour H.A.”

“This film is close (to the hearts) of the Saudi community and I’m very happy about that,” Alqahtani told Arab News.

“The interest in attending cinema screenings in Saudi is on a noticeable high, to the point where it drew in investors in the film industry ... (After 2018) I felt that the cinema scene was a lot more mature and serious, and this will create a world of difference in our outputs.”

The movie is the second-most-viewed Saudi film in theaters after the action comedy “Sattar.” The raging success of “Sattar” was in part due to well-calculated timing.

The Saudi comedy “Sattar” received high praise since its premiere last year, and has recently become the highest grossing Saudi movie with almost 900,000 ticket sales to date. (Supplied)

Ibraheem Alkhairallah, the film’s writer, producer, and co-star, told Arab News: “When we dropped ‘Sattar,’ we knew it was time ... Our whole time on the Internet was training for this big move.”

Telfaz11, which had spent years building its online presence, strategically awaited the establishment of cinemas in smaller districts before releasing what would become the country’s greatest cinema hit yet.

Ibraheem Alkhairallah on the set of Saudi film Sattar, where he portrayed the character of Abdulkhaleq, an undercover officer pretending to be a wrestling coach. (Supplied)

“The closest theater to the southern region isn’t Jeddah anymore; it’s Khamis Mushait, Abha. Hafar Al-Batin is not Dammam or Sharqiyah anymore — it’s themselves,” said Alkhairallah.

Khamis Mushait was one of the top five locations for the most ticket sales for screenings of “Sattar.” However, creatively speaking, Alkhairallah believes the film made a splash because it stayed true to Saudi culture.

“Talk to the audience. Don’t talk to the big festivals and foreigners to reach (success). No — once they see the interest from your own audience, it’ll travel.”


Arab movies ‘Inshallah a Boy,’ ‘Bye Bye Tiberias’ join Oscars race 

Arab movies ‘Inshallah a Boy,’ ‘Bye Bye Tiberias’ join Oscars race 
Updated 29 September 2023

Arab movies ‘Inshallah a Boy,’ ‘Bye Bye Tiberias’ join Oscars race 

Arab movies ‘Inshallah a Boy,’ ‘Bye Bye Tiberias’ join Oscars race 

DUBAI: Jordan has submitted Amjad Al-Rasheed’s movie “Inshallah a Boy” for the Best Foreign Film category at the 96th Academy Awards, while Palestine submitted Lina Soualem’s documentary “Bye Bye Tiberias” for consideration in the International Feature category, it was announced this week. 

This means that both films are considered for the shortlist. If the Arab movies get shortlisted, they could then get nominated for an Academy Award.

“Inshallah a Boy” was the first Jordanian film to compete in the Cannes Film Festival in May. The feature film was chosen to compete in Cannes Critics’ Week, a subsidiary event that ran alongside the 76th edition of the festival. 

“Bye Bye Tiberias” is by Lina Soualem. (Supplied)

The film, titled “Inshallah Walad” in Arabic, portrays the narrative of a young widow, Nawal, and her daughter, who are about to lose their home. 

The 90-minute film was shot last year in the Jordanian capital Amman over the course of five weeks. It received a Jordan Film Fund and Royal Film Commission production grant in 2019, as well as a post-production grant in 2022. 

In the much-hyped documentary “Bye Bye Tiberias,” Soualem, who is French, Palestinian and Algerian, captures the stories passed on by four generations of Palestinian women in her family, one of whom is her mother Hiam Abbass, the actress whose credits include “Succession,” “Ramy,” “Inheritance” and “Munich.”  

Soualem accompanies her mother and questions her choices as Abbass returns to her native Palestinian village 30 years after she left in her early 20s to follow her dream of becoming an actress in Europe, leaving behind her mother, grandmother, and seven sisters.  

The film will screen in the Documentary Competition section of the 67th BFI London Film Festival, set to take place from Oct. 4 – 15, 2023. 

Jordan and Palestine are not the only two Arab countries that submitted movies for the Oscars. 

Egypt has selected Mohamed Farag-starring “Voy Voy Voy!” while Yemen has selected director Amr Gamal’s “The Burdened” and Tunisia is competing with Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters.”

Morocco has selected Asmae El Moudir’s documentary “The Mother of All Lies.” 

Emily Blunt wears Zuhair Murad at awards ceremony in New York

Emily Blunt wears Zuhair Murad at awards ceremony in New York
Updated 29 September 2023

Emily Blunt wears Zuhair Murad at awards ceremony in New York

Emily Blunt wears Zuhair Murad at awards ceremony in New York
  • Awards named after Albie Sachs, South Africa’s former chief justice and anti-Apartheid activist, honors those fighting for justice and equality

DUBAI: British actress Emily Blunt this week attended the Clooney Foundation for Justice’s Albie Awards in a hot red dress by Lebanese designer Zuhair Murad.  

Blunt wore a flow-length gown with heart pocket details, accessorized with glitzy gold jewelry and a sparkly red clutch.

She posed for pictures on the gold carpet with her husband John Krasinski.

Blunt wore a flow-length gown with heart pocket details. (AFP)

This was the second annual ceremony hosted by the foundation which was founded by lawyer Amal Clooney and her actor husband George.

Amal attended the event, which took place at the New York Public Library, in a white Versace gown covered in crystals.

The guests in attendance included Anne Hathaway, Julianne Moore, Andra Day, Julianna Margulies, Cindy Crawford, MJ Rodriguez, Charlotte Tilbury, Donatella Versace, Jodie Turner-Smith and Heidi Klum, who wore a fully embellished figure-hugging gown by Lebanese-Italian designer Tony Ward. 


A post shared by TONY WARD (@tonywardcouture)

The event is named after South African lawyer, activist, writer and former chief justice Albie Sachs, who spent much of his life “defending people charged under racist statutes and repressive security laws.”

The event honor individuals who, at great personal risk, have devoted their lives to justice for the most vulnerable.

Review: ‘Shayda’ – a personal, powerful debut from director Noora Niasari  

Review: ‘Shayda’ – a personal, powerful debut from director Noora Niasari  
Updated 29 September 2023

Review: ‘Shayda’ – a personal, powerful debut from director Noora Niasari  

Review: ‘Shayda’ – a personal, powerful debut from director Noora Niasari  

TORONTO: Based on writer-director Noora Niasari’s own experiences, “Shayda” is an intimate yet striking drama that shines a light on the courage and resilience of women and mothers, more specifically single and immigrant mothers. 

Shayda (played by Zar Amir Ebrahimi who gained critical acclaim for “Holy Spider” in 2022) is an Iranian woman who immigrated to Australia to accompany her husband Hossein (Osamah Sami) while he finishes his university degree. Their relationship starts to get violent and in 1995, where this film begins, Shayda escapes with her daughter Mona (Selina Zahednia) to a women’s shelter. The story takes place during the two weeks of the Persian New Year, also known as Nowruz. What should be a joyous time celebrating with loved ones, Shayda has to deal with legal proceedings to gain full custody of Mona but while that’s underway, the courts allow Hossein unsupervised time with Mona. This unnerves Shayda because if Hossein wanted to, he could kidnap the child and flee. 

At the women’s shelter, Shayda tries to bring some normalcy to an abnormal situation for Mona and herself by participating in the customs of Nowruz. They put together their Haft-Sin and make decorations around a small table. Mona, however, has her heart set on fire jumping with the Iranian community, which is one of the events that marks the new year. Shayda is hesitant because it means having to meet the judgmental eye of her community. The shame and criticism a woman gets for leaving her marriage —even if it means protecting her life and that of her child — is a topic that Noora Niasari isn’t afraid to tackle because those cultural pressures are still prevalent today.  

While Zar Amir Ebrahimi shines in the titular role, it is Selina Zahednia as Mona who is the real star. It is a difficult role but the young performer is emotionally intelligent and hits all her marks creating a standout performance. 

Overall, it’s a fine piece of Australian cinema that will tug at your heart strings and open your eyes to an underrepresented community and stories we don’t often pay attention to. 

“Shayda” played as a part of the Centrepiece program at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. 

Kuwaiti director Zeyad Alhusaini, US actor Ron Perlman on ‘How I Got There’ 

Kuwaiti director Zeyad Alhusaini, US actor Ron Perlman on ‘How I Got There’ 
Updated 37 min 21 sec ago

Kuwaiti director Zeyad Alhusaini, US actor Ron Perlman on ‘How I Got There’ 

Kuwaiti director Zeyad Alhusaini, US actor Ron Perlman on ‘How I Got There’ 
  • ‘All the best filmmakers break the rules,’ says Zeyad Alhusaini

DUBAI: Great artists make the art they feel is missing from the world. For filmmakers, however, that’s easier said than done. For years, Kuwaiti director Zeyad ‘Zee’ Alhusaini was told that, to succeed, he had to either make a standard Hollywood movie, or another film highlighting Arab misery. He dreamed of something different — a cross-genre epic that merged the spirits of the films and the region he adored. He knew, deep down, that Gulf audiences craved a new path forward just as much as he did.  

Ten years after starting that journey, Alhusaini has been vindicated. His debut feature, “How I Got There” — a Saudi-Kuwaiti co-production — has just become the highest-grossing domestic film in Kuwait’s history, a few months after winning the Audience Award for Best Saudi Film at the 2022 Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah. And after signing with international talent agency UTA, he’s now set to become a major voice in global film for years to come.  

“How I Got There” is Alhusaini’s debut feature (Supplied) 

“Years ago, when I first became a filmmaker, I met with all the major studios. But I had to ask myself: Do I want to just make a film, or do I want to make a film that changes someone’s life? I chose the latter. That’s what drove me, and that’s what still drives me today,” Alhusaini tells Arab News. 

“In both the region and the world, we’re in dire need of new perspectives to reinvigorate this medium. For cinema to move forward, we need a new wave, and I hope to be part of that evolution,” he continues.  

Alhusaini has always been something of a maverick. When he studied film at Columbia University in New York, he would often get into arguments with his professors, who would tell him again and again to follow the so-called ‘rules’ of what makes a good screenplay, a notion that the filmmakers he adored, including Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, never adhered to.  

Ron Perlman in “How I Got There.” (Supplied)

“I remember one particular exchange. My professor told me: ‘I just want to help you write a better film!’ I responded, ‘I feel like you’re trying to make us all write the same film with different characters!’ I wanted to do something different, because all the best filmmakers break the rules,” Alhusaini says.  

With “How I Got There,” Alhusaini took heavy inspiration from Scorsese films such as “Casino” and “Goodfellas” to craft something singular; the story of two best friends who stumble upon a gun shipment in Kuwait and try to get rich quick, only to be pulled into a dark world of crime and terror, with action, drama, suspense, and a surprising dose of comedy. Alhusaini aimed big, even writing in an American mercenary that he imagined could be played by American actor Ron Perlman, the star of “Hellboy” and “Sons of Anarchy.” To his surprise, Perlman was interested.  

“In most scripts, you can predict where they’re going next, but in Zee’s script, I had no idea,” says Perlman. “I was hooked. It was truly great writing. We met in LA, and I could see that this was a serious filmmaker who was really dedicated to putting some heavy-duty stuff on the screen. And that's my language. I knew this was an adventure that I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in.”  

3 Alhusaini (center), his wife Latifa Aljasmi, and Perlman attend the screening of “How I Got There” at the Red Sea International Film Festival in December 2022. (Supplied)

The experience was eye-opening for Perlman, who, like most Americans, had only ever been exposed to the Arabian Gulf through sensationalist news stories, without having the chance to experience its culture first-hand. 

“My understanding of the Middle East was strictly from headlines on CNN. That’s a problem. When everything’s coming through the lens of socio-political news stories, you’re not being immersed in real culture; they’re not shining a light on the true humanity,” says Perlman. 

“One of the great privileges of my career is that I got this invitation to participate in a Kuwaiti-Saudi film, to see the human side of this amazing place. Zee gave me this incredible gift that few have gotten to experience: to be able to experience Kuwait and this region, to stand shoulder to shoulder with someone I never knew I would have a relationship with, as equals, and to present a work of art to the world with pride and love,” he continues.  

Perlman, who has just returned to the US after attending the film’s Kuwait and Saudi premieres, stars opposite a host of talent from across the region. While there are some established names, such as beloved Kuwaiti veteran actor Jassim Al-Nabhan, Alhusaini primarily opted for up-and-comers who had yet to enter the film world, including Kuwaiti TV veteran Yaqoob Abdullah, Bahraini pop star Hala Al-Turk, and Kuwait-born Iraqi actress Rawan Mahdi, star of Netflix’s acclaimed series “The Exchange.”  

Bobby Naderi (left) and Rawan Mahdi in “How I Got There.” (Supplied)

“I spent three months with the actors, basically stripping away the habits of television and replacing them with new habits,” says Alhusaini. “That was crucial, because I wanted us to get to the point where we could have our own little language. When Ron came in, he made everyone so comfortable because he has this contented spirit that is just infectious. You can’t help but feel welcome around him.” 

While Perlman, 72, admits he has grown more and more comfortable in his own skin as he’s gotten older, he doesn’t revel in being the guy on set that everyone looks up to.  

“I don’t like being the elder statesman at all. My knees hurt, my ankles hurt… I remember being the kid they ordered to go get a cup of coffee for them. Those were the days!” says Perlman. 

“On this set, a funny thing happened. We were all so curious about each other’s cultures that we kind of diminished our own experiences. The other lead actors might look at me like I’ve cornered the market on success, just because I've been around longer and I’ve done a larger number of projects. When that happened, I said to them, ‘You just gave a performance that blew my mind. That’s what you need to know. You don't need to hear anything from me. You don’t understand how special you are.’” 

Yaqoob Abdulla (center, left) and Hamad Alomadi (center, right) in “How I Got There.” (Supplied)

Alhusaini now counts Perlman as a friend, a welcome end to a journey that began when he first entered the script into the IWC Filmmaker Award at the Dubai International Film Festival in 2013, and began shooting the film in 2018.  

Now, as he nears the end of a successful theatrical run in the region, he waits to see what the future holds for international release. He knows the right streaming partner could turn his film into the sort of cult classic that could inspire a new generation, just as the films of the 70s, 80s, and 90s inspired him. 

“This has been one of the most difficult experiences of my life, but never for a second did I think to stop. I always wanted to find a way, because I knew this would be an important film. I matured as a filmmaker, I got to meet great people, and I got to present something that I feel is important for people of Kuwait and the Gulf,” says Alhusaini.  

“For now, I need to rest, but the next journey begins (soon). My next film will be set in the US, and then I’ll return to the Middle East for the one after that, and so on, in a cycle. And if all goes well, Ron and I will be working together again on the next one, in a very different style,” he continues. “There’s so much left to do, but the new wave is coming.” 

Review: The world of ‘John Wick’ expands with prequel series ‘The Continental’ 

Review: The world of ‘John Wick’ expands with prequel series ‘The Continental’ 
Updated 29 September 2023

Review: The world of ‘John Wick’ expands with prequel series ‘The Continental’ 

Review: The world of ‘John Wick’ expands with prequel series ‘The Continental’ 
  • New Amazon show tells the story of the assassins’ hotel run by Winston

LONDON: The all-action world of the “John Wick” franchise has a (mostly) serene haven at its heart: The Continental — a (mostly) safe place for the world’s top assassins to stay and, in the movies, an important location for many of the plot-driving set pieces that power the misadventures of Keanu Reeves’ titular hit man. 

If you’ve ever wondered exactly how the super-discreet hotel came to be in the hands of proprietor Winston (played in the films by Ian McShane) then Prime Video has a show for you. “The Continental: From The World of John Wick” is a three-part miniseries that shows how a young Winston (Colin Woodell) was forced to leave his life in London, becoming embroiled in a world of eccentric assassins, hyper-kinetic shootouts and murky underworld dealings. 

When Winston’s brother Frankie (Ben Robson) stages an elaborate heist at The Continental, the hotel’s then-owner Cormac (Mel Gibson) holds both brothers responsible, sending Winston out into 1970s New York to track down his errant sibling. With the pair reunited, the scene is set for a steady stream of stylish shootouts and close-quarter brawls as the brothers try to outrun wave after wave of Cormac’s goons. 

Creators Greg Coolidge, Kirk Ward and Shawn Simmons have crafted a grungy period piece packed with stylish set pieces and a lived-in alternate New York that oozes menace. Episode one director Albert Hughes (“Alpha”) turns in an impressive introduction — a pitched car battle with staccato editing and some stunning framing is a particular highlight — and fleshes out this new (yet somewhat familiar) world with aplomb. In fact, it’s almost a shame the “John Wick” movies have already set such a high bar for modern gunplay action flicks, or we’d be heralding “The Continental” as something truly new and exciting. 

But while it’s well put together, and well-acted (Gibson’s one-note villain aside), it seems reasonable to question whether the “John Wick” franchise really needed a world-building prequel series centered around a supporting character. And there are only two episodes remaining to prove if the gamble was worth it.