‘The Continental’ Recap, Episode 1: Brothers in Arms

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Photo: Lloyd Bishop/Peacock/Lloyd Bishop/Peacock

The Continental Hotel is both the physical and spiritual epicenter of the world of John Wick — a way station and sanctuary to the infernal order of assassins, mercenaries, and other homicidal maniacs that serve the High Table — a secret all-powerful fraternity seemingly as old as time.

The Continental: From The World of John Wick drops us in New York on New Year’s Eve, the late ‘70s with a man named Frankie (Ben Robson), who has broken into the Continental vault (in the coolest, most NYC way possible) to steal a coin press. The gold coin is the universal currency and the most basic certificate of membership in this secret society. But crossing the hands of fate brings consequences. Deciding how you take them is the only way to push your will. That’s the spiritual journey at the heart of John Wick, Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves’ pop-mythological neon-noir action series about a dark-messianic hitman, the one they call the Baba Yaga, drawn out of retirement to avenge his dead wife (and dog). Earlier this year, John Wick: Chapter 4 widened the scope enough to at least suggest you could build a future Wick-verse, post-Wick himself. There’s a Ballerina spin-off film on the way starring Ana De Armas, and today, The World of John Wick is coming at ya with a groovy, grimy prequel mini-series with Wickism you can imagine set to the tune of the ‘70s.

The Continental is supposed to be something of an origin story for Winston Scott, future owner of the Continental Hotel and unlikely Gandalf/Obi-Wan figure to John Wick. Made iconic as hell by Ian McShane in the movies, Winston’s backstory was never part of the equation. Still, if you’re going to do a John Wick prequel, you could do worse than going back 45 years with this guy to see how he built up the New York underworld of the films out of the ashes of an alternate recession era.

And right away, Colin Woodell toes that line of presenting a recognizable figure in the young Winston, only on the verge of coming into being. Far from his humble origins, Winston’s made something of himself as a playboy of London finance, hustling investors by bedding their wives and running cheeky little namedrop cons. But just as Winston’s latest business affair is winding down, a bunch of Cormac O’Connor’s (Mel Gibson) goons show up, throw a hood over his head, and escort him on a very uncomfortable flight home to New York.

We find Cormac in his palatial office, about to give four of his guys a stern, scenery-chewing what-for. Cormac’s our big baddie and a new creation of the Wick-verse — a ruthless, gluttonous gangster for whom brothers Frankie and Winston served as dutiful errand boys when they were kids; now the owner and increasingly chaotic proprietor of the Continental. It turns out their dad lost the family home because he took a loan from Cormac. Somehow, these brothers ended up on the streets, and Frankie tried to keep Winston alive by keeping him out of the organized criminal life. With a young Charon (Winston’s loyal right-hand man in the films, played by the late, great Lance Reddick) on hand to bounce back and forth with, Cormac lays out the gravity of the famous golden rule of the hotel: no bloodshed on Continental grounds. To those who violate that rule: Excommunicado. “That’s Latin for you’re fucked,” Cormac says, Gibson doing his best Whitey Bulger. The real Wick heads will know: you kill someone during your stay at the Continental, and you lose all Continental privileges, resources, and protection. Assassin’s union card revoked. It’s the most sacred of laws around these parts, and Cormac distorts it to end a life without getting his hands dirty. His parting message to the henchman he’s reprimanding: sacrifice yourself for your mistakes, and I won’t have to do anything to your wife and kids.

And here, Cormac stands in immediate contrast to Winston, his future successor. Where the future Winston operates from a deep well of knowledge and respect for the rules that govern their world, Cormac wields them with the unearned bravado of a mad king too soft to see his own words coming back to bite him in the ass. Winston arrives at the Continental just in time to see Cormac’s henchman go splat on the pavement beside him. Sarcastic pleasantries are brief before Cormac lays out the situation: Frankie “stole something that holds this entire establishment together.” Cormac wants it back and he wants Winston to get it for him. If he doesn’t, the whole weight of Comrac’s institution will come down on the Scott brothers quickly.

So it’s a quick meet-cute for Winston and Charon, future brothers in arms (I love the regal warmth Ayomide Adegun is already emanating in this part), and our guy’s on his way out the Continental doors. Here’s where we get another familiar face from the John Wick movies. You may remember Charlie as the guy who runs the Continental cleanup crew, first seen at Wick’s home in the first movie following his first big fight scene. Circa late ‘70s, he’s Uncle Charlie (Peter Greene), leader of a local rag-tag crew of underground misfits who taught Winston to play poker as a kid. He’s Winston’s first source for intel on his brother, and sure enough, Charlie points him toward Chinatown.

Winston’s still unsure why he’s tracking down his brother. He’s puzzled by Frankie’s decision to return from Vietnam to work for Cormac, the monster that, as Winston hints at here, ruined their lives, took their house, and put their family on the street. Nevertheless, they’re brothers, and he will find Frankie before Cormac does. So Charlie fixes him up with a black Mustang, if I’m not mistaken, the same make and model as John Wick’s iconic wheels (any car people out there in the comments, feel free to mercilessly correct me). Queue ZZ Top’s “La Grange” as Winston sets out into the night and have mercy.

Winston finds himself at Burton Karate, the dojo of Miles (Hubert Point-Du Jour) and Lou (Jessica Allain), and their partner in crime, Lemmy (Adam Shapiro) — Frankie’s old gang of gun runners. Lou takes him, at gunpoint, to chat with Miles and Lemmy, where they establish enough of an understanding to tell their side of the story. Miles tells Winston about a gun deal that Frankie never showed up for, resulting in Lemmy getting shot between his balls and ass (his words). Miles says that Frankie seemed like he was “getting himself straightened out” after meeting a girl from overseas. “Then he lands in New York and ends up getting into some shit.” Winston can fill in the blanks from there. That’s when Frankie went back to the Continental to work for Cormac. The only other actionable piece of info this crew has for now is Frankie used to roll down in Alphabet City. His and Winston’s old stomping ground.

And that’s where Winston finally finds Frankie, hiding out in an abandoned movie theater. Lured to the front row of the screening room by a dummy in Frankie’s army jacket, Winston’s swept up in a noose. On the other end of it, Frankie’s wife Yen (Nhung Kate), just in time for the long-lost brother to emerge from the shadows. The light emphasizes Frankie’s eyes in the same type of Sergio Leone-esque closeup of so many interesting faces throughout the Wick films. But there’s no time for belabored hellos. Winston convinces Frankie and Yen to leave the place before Cormac’s goons show up, with a coin press in their possession. Frankie drops a quick line about stealing the press for a group called “the nihilists,” who promised him a way out. But they left him in the lurch, and there’s no escaping the people Cormac works for. “Winston, they control everything,” Frank says.

References to the High Table are dolled out from an outsider’s perspective here, imbuing the organization with a new air of menace and mystery befitting the genre and setting (think ‘70s paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View). Elsewhere, we’re introduced to this era’s Adjudicator (Katie McGrath), a disciplinary representative of the High Table. It’s pretty goddamn sick when the Adjudicator emerges from the shadows wearing a porcelain mask over the lower half of her face to question the guy Frankie stole the coin press with. She mocks her captive for the $40,000 he took to betray Frankie during the heist. “Keys to the world for a pittance,” she says. “The value of an artifact that could topple an organization that predates the Roman empire?” This is our first-ever hint that the High Table’s been around longer than most of us would’ve imagined.

Meanwhile, Frankie and Winston hide out at Charlie’s while they figure out their next moves. They’ve been spotted by Cormac’s hired “weirdo” twin assassins, Hansel (Mark Musashi) and Gretel (Marina Mazepa). One brief car chase and hand-to-hand extravaganza later, Winston, Frankie, and Yen have made it to their escape helicopter, piloted by Charlie’s buddy, Ronnie (Chris Ryman). Heavy shots hit the helicopter from psycho-twin Gretel’s sniper rifle from atop a nearby building.

Frankie knows this is where he can cash in his life for the highest possible reward, giving his wife and brother a chance to escape. Taking the coin press case (not the actual coin press, as will soon be revealed), Frankie hops off the helicopter and takes his final bullet. Just when Winston thought he was out, fate has pulled him back into the den of thieves. The scene has been set for his ascension to the throne, but not without its fatal sacrifices.

• Honestly, man, I might be a bit too primed for this shit. My cinematic obsessions put me right in the crosshairs of this show’s Death Wish-meets-The Warriors oeuvre. Hell, I’m catching stray Dirty Harry references (neon “Jesus Saves” sign, anyone?) and John Wick easter eggs by the minute. I’m also pretty adamant that John Wick is the best action series of the 21st century (rivaled only by Gareth Evan’s The Raid movies), not only for the peerless stunt and camera work but for the way Stahelski built a vibes-based world and mythology out of disparate interests, George Lucas style. It stands to reason I’d be a mark for a prequel that folds in the very strain of ‘70s vigilante/crime thriller from which the modern action genre was born.

• There’s no denying the inspired choice of Albert Hughes, one-half of the Hughes Brothers (Menace II Society, Dead Presidents), to direct the first and third episodes of The Continental with the style it demands. Hughes, as he tells it to Deadline, was excited by the edict from Stahelski to bring The World of John Wick to television via the director’s own, most dearly held cinematic interests, from Sidney Lumet films to an eclectic mix of elite ‘70s needle drops. Turning the dial from neon noir to disco noir. The exuberance is felt throughout.

• Props to series stunt coordinator and action director Larnell Stovall, part of Stahelski and David Leitch’s peerless 87eleven stunt design company. Wick fans will surely be frustrated by the downgrade in stunts and fight scenes in the move to television. I feel that frustration too, but not nearly as much as I thought. All the other moving parts, performances, stylistic choices, and well-placed Wickisms have me intrigued for the time being.

• Mel Gibson was attached to this show in 2021, and I was honestly surprised to see his name stick to this thing all the way to fruition, let alone at the top of the bill. However perverse, Gibson is an undeniable get for this villain role. The wicked combo of his exceedingly nasty public controversies, his place in the annals of American action cinema, and his veteran Hollywood scenery-chewing status give uncanny potency to Hughes’ construction of the character, “a cross between Joel Silver and Donald Trump.”

• The best and most Wick-esque kill of the episode goes to Yen, stabbing a guy in the head with a whole-ass clothes iron.

• More appreciation for Hansel and Gretel. A perfect pair of hot weirdo assassins to usher that Wickian tradition into the show. Hansel, in particular, had me howling with his silent, no-blink stare and hairdo caught somewhere between Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men and Richard Harris in 99/44 100% Dead. 

• I was also pretty keen on the Adjudicator’s Scottish BDSM guy henchman, presumably on loan from Trainspotting.

• No ‘70s crime piece is complete without its hard-boiled cop. Enter KD (Mishel Prada), a newly minted detective with an as-yet-undisclosed bone to pick with the Continental. Despite a serious warning from her superior and current fuck buddy Mayhew (Jeremy Bobb, a prolific character player with a penchant for playing greaseballs), KD is the first non-affiliated character to breach Continental grounds in a sequence re-imbuing the hotel and its secret society with the aura of mystery that it carried in the first film. Prada is a cool, enigmatic but grounding presence for this gritty urban reality part of the story. Looking forward to seeing how she illuminates the proceedings in Nights Two and Three.

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