Peacock’s John Wick spinoff, The Continental, has had a secret weapon lurking in the shadows. And in the third and final episode of the limited series, she was finally unleashed.
That weapon is Ukrainian actress, model, dancer, and contortionist Marina Mazepa, best known as the physical performer behind the unforgettable Gabriel from James Wan’s Malignant. In The Continental, she’s Gretel, one half of the hard-to-miss assassin twins Hansel and Gretel. Their bowl cuts and expressionless faces have distinguished them as promisingly cool opponents for our protagonists from the start. We had seen Gretel casually doing the splits around the hotel, but there weren’t many other hints to tip viewers off to Mazepa’s unique set of skills or how they would be deployed.
That all changes in one of the finale’s climactic fights, where Gretel takes on Yen (Nhung Kate) on the rooftop of The Continental, delivering over-the-head scorpion kicks and bending her limbs in ways that seem physically impossible, in a scene reminiscent of Day Shift’s contortionist vampires. It’s a reveal by design, action director Larnell Stovall (who credits Day Shift director J.J. Perry as a mentor) told Polygon.
“We held back on the contortion stuff as much as we could, because I wanted that to have its own story,” Stovall says. “You didn’t know what she truly brought to the table until that fight scene. So I’m grateful [the writers] held her character back a lot. And then all of a sudden, you’re like, Oh, shit, this is what she’s capable of? But if you saw that throughout the whole time, there probably wouldn’t have been as many surprises.”
The fight starts 72 minutes into the 97-minute finale and lasts for four glorious minutes, beginning with a Western standoff as the two glare at each other on the roof of the hotel before discarding their respective weapons and silently agreeing to a close-quarters fight.
Suddenly, the two charge at each other, as Yen goes for a takedown around Gretel’s waist, sending her to the ground. This fighting style reflects Nhung Kate’s MMA background — she has fought in cage matches, and trains with her partner and fellow martial artist Johnny Trí Nguyễn (Da 5 Bloods) — and provided an interesting opportunity for Stovall and his team to juxtapose the two actors’ backgrounds as physical performers.
“You take each fighter individually, you work with them, you find what makes them who they are as a fighter, and then you build upon that,” Stovall says. “Once you have that solid base, then you can bring them together. Now they can dance, because you deliver the safety elements. You’ve created the story, they’ve agreed upon it. And now when they get together, it makes it a lot easier for them both to agree on the flow of it moving forward.”
Actors with an MMA background are a particular challenge, because they’re used to physical contact, Stovall says.
“They’re not used to throwing movements to sell for a camera. They’re trying to knock somebody out, they’re trying to put pain on somebody,” Stovall says. “So our job is to bring that to the table, but keep it as safe as possible. Because, you know, at the end of the day, we’re pretending, and when you say ‘Cut!’ and someone’s ready to go grab a salad and drink their water, they want to do it comfortably. They don’t want a busted lip, or something broken.”
After Yen tackles her opponent to the ground, the taller Gretel is able to make her way back up again, bringing the fight back to a standing position. Stovall and the Continental team effectively contrast Yen’s forceful movements with Gretel’s length, keeping Yen at a distance, leading up to an over-the-head scorpion kick that gives us our clearest taste yet of Mazepa’s contortionist abilities.
While Mazepa’s experience as a contortionist added extra flavor to the fight scene, Stovall says her background as a dancer helped just as much.
“[A dancing background] means it’s easier for that person nine times out of 10 to remember the choreography,” Stovall says. “But we have to make sure they’re able to sell it as if it’s a fight. And that it doesn’t look like they’re doing a three count, an eight count in their head. So it’s just about finding that balance.”
After the scorpion kick, Yen gets Gretel back on the ground again and seemingly wins the fight — until Gretel twists all of her limbs and rises up like a horror monster back from the dead, pulling her legs entirely over her heads as she stands up and cracks her neck, ready to brawl.
From there, Mazepa’s skills really shine. Yen throws a kick that Gretel dodges by bending her head and neck seemingly all the way back, then grips her leg around Yen’s neck at what seems like an impossible angle. She kicks Yen in the face out of a backwards somersault, sending her opponent flying to the ground before creeping up, limbs seemingly everywhere, ready to deliver the finishing blow.
But it’s not over, of course — Yen blocks Gretel’s knife with her hand, breaking Gretel’s leg and unleashing a series of stabs in the rooftop pool, in an image that would fit right in with most slasher movies. Gretel makes her way out of the pool, only to find Yen’s explosive vest on her for a… combustible finish. And so ends the best fight of Peacock’s The Continental.
Stovall says he luckily had months to think about and plan out the fight. He asked his team to play up how the two characters (and performers) fight in ways that are unique to them.
“‘Don’t just focus on kicks and punches,’” Stovall says he told his team. “‘Don’t just focus on the newest cool throw that everybody’s seen on YouTube, OK? Make it mean something by the time you do a throw. Make the throw be something that is avoiding something, or if someone’s in pain, let’s keep the pain consistent.’”
Then came the best part: working Mazepa and Nhung Kate into the scene.
“They added their own flavor, and they loved it,” Stovall says. “From there it was just a matter of making the dance smooth [and] efficient. So by the time it was time to turn on that viciousness, you believed it.
“Kate, she’s like a buzzsaw. When she goes, she goes. And Marina, who was kind of slow and methodical the entire way — it felt good for her to go, Hmm, let’s play. The love that went into it, the pain that went into it, because those ladies went at it. There was a lot of physical contact. And I think it needed that.”
He compared the scene to arguably the best fight he’s ever directed: Yuri Boyka (Scott Adkins) vs. Raul “Dolor” Quinones (Marko Zaror) in Undisputed 3. It’s easy to see why; both are complete stories told through motion and physicality, both slow down the action in key moments to let the storytelling breathe, both contrast a smaller and stronger fighter with a taller one, and both contain brutal fighting with gorgeous choreography. (Now, Undisputed 3 got nearly 10 minutes for its showstopping fight compared to The Continental’s four, but this was just one of multiple impressive finale fights for the Peacock limited series.)
Gretel’s partner in crime, Hansel, also had his own reveal of sorts in the third episode. The part was played by Stovall’s good friend Mark Musashi, a skilled martial artist and practitioner of wushu. His creepy performance as Hansel was praised as “serial killer-like” by Stovall, who told Musashi his character was basically a silent version of Jet Li’s Danny from Unleashed, who was trained into being essentially an attack dog for the man that raised him, without any real connection to other humans.
“He was able to bring a lot of flavor to it,” Stovall says. “It allowed me to sneak in some anime shots, in the way he was filmed and designed. So you know, hopefully some people catch that; that’s on purpose.”
For Hansel, his arc in the show culminates in a terrific fight scene in The Continental’s Pool Hall against Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and Lou (Jessica Allain).
Like the Yen-versus-Gretel showdown, Hansel’s final fight breaks new ground in making full use of the varied talents on display in the cast. Of course, the Gretel fight still has the edge, thanks to Mazepa’s contortionism, which brings a new jolt to the high-octane action sequences. With moves like that, it’s no surprise her turn in Malignant was as indelible as it was. Malignant was one of the best surprises of 2021 in movies. The Continental is one of the best surprises of the year in television. Marina Mazepa, I can’t wait to see what you do next.
All three episodes of The Continental: From the World of John Wick are now streaming on Peacock.