There is something old-school in the marketing of the Continental TV series by advertising it as a three-night event. It reminds you of the miniseries of the 1970s and 1980s, which would adapt stories that had some level of popularity or critical acclaim. The difference here is that “The Continental” is a television series, which is the first of Lionsgate’s efforts to expand the franchise laterally rather than directly. The Ana De Armas-led and Len Wiseman-helmed Ballerina will be released next year. This, however, runs the risk of a lack of quality control to create more quantity and wring it out of an IP.
I think the creators of The Continental: From the World of John Wick took one of the unique aspects of the John Wick franchise—the lore—and put it through a typical revenge drama lens replete with strained brotherly relationships. As the first episode closes out, the question arises whether we needed a 270-minute story for what is essentially looking to shape up as a 135-minute film regarding the overall plot. Then again, this recap is going to focus on the plot along with the storytelling structure.
For television shows, even within a miniseries format, the complete picture is not possible to be understood until the season ends, even though predictability is now a metric for judging the quality of a television show at least halfway through a season. But, considering that the pilot is directed by one of the directors of “Dead Presidents,” this season does hold some infinitesimal promises. Each episode being 90 minutes long is asking a tad bit too much for any viewer, considering the first John Wick (2014) ran for almost the exact runtime.
The Continental: From the World of John Wick, Episode 1 “Night 1: Brothers in Arms” Recap:
The Continental: From the World of John Wick drops us right in the middle of 1970s New York, where the Continental Hotel is still standing, the waypoint of assassins and crime bosses. It is, however, led by Cormac O’Connor (Mel Gibson), more gangster than smooth-talking assassin. We, however, follow Frankie (Ben Robson) as he, evidently not having the best of relationships with O’Connor, manages to enact a plan and open the vault of The Continental. The plan itself is very cool and yet very overcomplicated, dealing with a grappling hook connected to the bank vault door and the end of the grappling hook hanging just over the ceiling of the subway.
The force of the train hitting pulls the vault door down, and Frankie uses that opportunity to steal Connor’s coin press, which John Wick fans would realize is the definitive currency for the universe within this heightened world, and all hell breaks loose as his partner in crime tries to betray him while O’Connor’s assassins start coming after him, leading to a fight scene in the staircase very much reminiscent of the John Wick franchise. However, the difference is in the blocking within the one-take sequence, which loses the smoothness of the fight scenes choreographed by Stahelski.
But Frankie isn’t the protagonist of the show. The connective tissue within the John Wick franchise here, other than the titular waypoint, is Winston Scott (played by Ian McShane in the movies and Colin Woodell in the show). It is revealed that he is the younger brother of Frankie, and when he is introduced, we find him in London, trying to manipulate and fleece through the world of finance and looking all dapper and suave. Until he is kidnapped at night from his hotel room, transported to America, and planted in front of O’Connor. Before Winston is introduced, we see O’Connor giving a stern talking-to to his young assassins while also giving an exposition dump regarding the Continental.
O’Connor is effective in convincing one of the assassins to jump out of the building through the balcony, preventing him from killing the assassin on Continental grounds. But as Winston converses with O’Connor, we learn that Frankie and Winston had been raised by and worked under O’Connor while their father had been in debt and lost the family home. In those younger times, Frankie tried to keep Winston apart from the life of violent crime, which O’Connor ruled with a young Charon (played by the late Lance Reddick in the films and Ayomide Adegun here) at his side. However, now O’Connor is frazzled because Frankie has come back from the Vietnam War and has started working for O’Connor again, apparently under the guise of biding his time until he steals something important, which O’Connor is eager to get back.
Another connection to the Wickverse comes via the character of Charlie, who we know belongs to the Continental cleanup crew. It can be presumed that this is the same Uncle Charlie (Peter Greene), leader of a local crew of underground misfits unable to keep their jobs together because of the real trash and garbage issues in the 1970s. He had taught Winston and Frankie to play poker as kids, and when asked about Frankie’s location, he pointed to a karate dojo in the middle of Chinatown. Oh, and he also gives Winston his Ford Mustang (a nod to the same car in the first two Wick movies that John had, and considering that it’s a vintage, you wonder whether it’s the same car), with the caveat that every time Winston parked the car, he would cover it with the tarpaulin sheet. He is even given a gun by Charlie for protection of the car rather than his own hide.
Winston finds himself driving to Burton Karate, with ZZ Top’s La Grange filling the soundscape. The dojo belongs to Miles (Henry Point Du-Jour) and his sister Lou (Jessica Allain), while Miles runs an old gun-running business with Frankie and Lemmy (Adam Shapiro). Lou managed to surprise Winston when Winston had her at gunpoint by leading him straight to Miles and Lemmy, where they revealed that Frankie had been working with them in the gunrunning business since returning from Vietnam until one day when he checked into a hotel. He had apparently straightened out and given up dope after meeting a girl from overseas, but coming back to New York had landed him in shark-infested waters. The only other new piece of information for both Winston and the audience is that Frankie used to stay in Alphabet City, which once used to be the old stomping grounds of the Scott brothers.
Driving to the old rundown theatre in Alphabet City is where Winston finally finds Frankie after being lured to the front row by a woody woodpecker short playing on the screen, a doll on the seats closest to the screen, and then being hung by the neck and pulled up by Yen (Nhung Kate), until Frankie emerges from the shadows. There is no time for much of a greeting, as Winston wants to know why he is looking for his brother and what his brother is up to. Here, Frankie drops information like the Nihilists, who paid him to steal the coin press, while the High Table is revealed to be a shadowy organization in the front rows of conspiracy thrillers, not unlike the Illuminati. The only time the show actually veers deep into the weird, heightened world of the John Wick films is during the revelation of the adjudicator, who is interrogating the accomplice of Frankie until he kills him, but not before mocking him for stealing arguably one of the biggest artifacts of an organization that had been around longer than the Roman Empire, for the mere pittance of $40,000.
These are all interesting moments, but like most elements, they feel so much like an ABC television show in how the exposition is doled out or how information is transmitted that its connection to John Wick as a whole is positively harming “The Continental.” Gone are the days when substandard television shows as tie-ins to billion-dollar movie franchises were the norm. “The Continental” feels like the laborious red-headed stepchild of the sleek and backstory-lite John Wick films, unable to transcend the modest structure of network television even when given the budget to spring itself out of. This is most apparent in the subplot of a female police officer who investigates the suicide attempt of that assassin and is drawn into the interesting web of “The Continental.”
While that allows for an outside perspective on how the internal workings of The Continental Hotel are executed (the bartender and the concierge are looking in surprise as she buys a drink using cash in the lobby bar), it still begs the question: if the show is actually marketed as a spin-off of John Wick, why bring in an audience surrogate and run the risk of additional bloat in an already bloated show? It is unnecessary to give the backstory of the police detective having an affair with a married detective in the police force when cooler imagery like the adjudicator wearing the porcelain mask on the lower half of her face or the “weird twins” assassins Hansel and Gretel being instructed to find the Scott brothers once the attack on Alphabet City fails works equally well, if not more.
Speaking of, the Scott Brothers are attacked by a group of hired thugs of O’Connor and made rough work of by Winston and Frankie, quicker and lethal work by Yen using the signature action set pieces. There are moments where the show does shine, like Frankie nonchalantly coming in front of the gun pointed towards Winston and taking the shot in the shoulder, flinching, and moving away, leaving Winston room to shoot back at the attacker. The one thing that the show manages to borrow very well from the Wick franchise is the liberal use of “double tap” shots on the dead bodies. But those instances work far better than actual dialogue delivery describing the relationship between the brothers and Frankie trying to protect Winston. Another fascinating flourish is Franke learning Vietnamese and communicating with Yen through that language instead of the opposite. It almost gives the love story an extra dimension that the rote dialogues do not provide.
The Continental: From the World of John Wick, Episode 1 “Night 1: Brothers in Arms” Ending Explained:
Frankie and Winston, along with Yen, hide out at Charlie’s until the weird twins finally figure out their location. There is a car chase, which reminds you of how action scenes are cut in movie trailers, with black screens punctuating the action set pieces. At the very least, it is an alternate method of shooting action set pieces without spending more budget, like in the John Wick movies, simply because they’re unable to. However, it also unfavorably reminds you of KGF Chapter 2’s first car chase sequence, which, as a comparison to any property in the Wick franchise, is a disappointing one.
The car crashes, and the three of them barely manage to get to the roof of the building, where a helicopter is waiting for them. As Winston, Yen, and Frankie mount the helicopter, Yen is shot in the leg by the sniper rifle of one of the weird twins. This gives Franke leverage to make a heroic sacrifice by jumping down from the helicopter with, apparently, the coin press and being shot by the twins. We later see O’Connor opening the press, only to see a doll flipping the finger. The episode ends with Yen and Winston barely managing to drag themselves to the Burton Karate dojo and Winston muttering the famous John Wick dialogue, “I need guns, lots of guns.”
Episode 1 of The Continental tries to change the neon-drenched world of John Wick into a sepia-toned gritty crime thriller of the 1970s, and it could have worked if it did not feel like a network television show in its dialogues. The marketing might feel old-school, but the dialogue and the screenplay feel so old-school and completely ancillary that it just feels like a mismatch. More importantly, so much backstory only bloats the runtime of this episode because it doesn’t need to be 90 minutes at all. The two great things about The Continental so far are the opening credits and the needle drops. Here’s hoping the second episode cranks up the pace and does something more substantial in 90 minutes.