The Continental: A Fun But Frustrating John Wick Prequel Full of Wasted Potential

The John Wick spin-off is an entertaining 70s action spectacle but had all the elements to be a fantastic season of television rather than just an abridged prequel miniseries...

The Continental isn’t the John Wick spin-off I thought it would be. The hotel for hitmen sparked imaginations when it first appeared in the opening instalment of the Keanu Reeves action saga, and has been a highlight of each entry since. A TV series based on the location was a no-brainer. It seemed everyone on the Internet had the same idea for it; an idea we were all certain the show would embrace when it was finally announced to be happening. Every room in the hotel holds a story, each guest a tale. It’s a perfect setting for an anthology series, with each episode focusing on a new guest on their own mission, the hotel as a connecting hub, expanding the fascinating, ludicrous world of John Wick. Instead, The Continental, the show we actually got rather than the one we all imagined, is just a John Wick story without John Wick.

The plot is near identical to that of the movies. A loner seeks revenge on a big criminal kingpin for a personal loss, meets with different factions in the city, gains some allies, and then leads an assault. That’s it. The show follows the same beat-for-beat simple formula as the first film. Without Wick, it’s just not that interesting. Instead of a spin-off expanding the franchise’s universe, the show is a prequel content with contracting it. It’s a look at how Winston became the Winston of the films, despite the lead actor looking or sounding nothing like Ian McShane, suffering from all the Prequelitis imaginable, from an origin of the Bowery faction to a random appearance by John Wick’s car.

Originally The Continental was to be a ten-episode season rather than a three-episode miniseries and you can feel that. The condensing is clear. The first episode is a premiere, the final episode a finale, and the middle episode is eight episodes squished together. The Winston story would work well as a throughline of a bigger series, a spine from which all the other characters and stories could hang. But in shrinking the show, the simple framing device became the whole plot. All of the interesting side characters and subplots are crammed into a few short scenes instead of given time to breathe.

The miniseries is rife with potential. There are so many good characters with fascinating stories barely explored. The US soldiers left damaged by Vietnam, using their newfound skills for criminality. The ex-Viet Cong solider trying to build a new life in New York with her American partner after that most cliché of meet cutes: trying to blow herself up in a brothel. The blaxploitation-inspired African American karate siblings trying to deal with their father’s legacy. Lemmy… ok, not Lemmy, he was terrible comic relief. Cormac could have been an interesting villain rather than just being a generic bad guy. I wanted more insight into Charon, too. All the pieces are there for a great season of television. A season with an overarching narrative but novelistic, defined episodes focusing on different characters, culminating with an assault on The Continental.

There’s a moment in the third episode when all of the guests in the hotel leave their rooms to join the fight and I couldn’t help thinking “why isn’t the show about them?” The show focuses on the guy who will run the hotel in the later movies rather than the current occupants. The best characters in this franchise have always been the fringe weirdos rather than the main players. Those are the kinds of people I want to see more of in a Continental show. The creepy twins and the sniper Jenkins are the only characters who scratch that Wickian itch.

The coin press is a Macguffin driving much of the action in the series but so too is the titular hotel itself. The show isn’t truly about The Continental. It’s just an object to fight over, a prize to possess. The synopsis of the show on Amazon Prime Video (its international home) states that the series is about the hotel’s origins. It’s not. It’s already up and running, and you learn very little new information, about either the hotel or the world at large. There’s almost no new lore, just the recycling of ideas from the films. I do like the introduction of the pneumatic tubes and floor 13 in the hotel, but that’s about it. Mel Gibson (who is terrible in the show) plays the villainous Cormac, who could easily have been more fleshed out. What if it was he himself who created the hotel and its rules? A gangster who has risen to the top and is so scared of retribution from his enemies he creates a hotel were violence is prohibited and locks himself inside.

The cop storyline feels like a strange oddity in the miniseries, but could have been interesting. One of the best scenes is KD walking into the hotel for the first time and just watching what is happening in the lobby. The strange coins; the hidden weapons. It’s a great ‘in’ to the series and concept: someone outside of this world discovering it for the first time. An outsider butting up against this bizarre criminal institution and learning to navigate it. A cop pressured into looking the other way by their corrupt colleagues who know what actually goes on inside The Continental. It would make a great episode in the ten-part version of this story. But it only lasts that one scene. Later, KD just accepts it’s a hotel for hitmen with rules without acknowledging why or how. The rules or origin or status quo of the hotel are never actually discussed; new viewers would be completely lost.

What makes The Continental interesting isn’t just it being a criminal hotel but its rules. There is no conducting of business on the premises. It’s the whole concept of the building, and therefore should be a key part of the show. Instead, the series is desperate to remove these rules at every opportunity. Cormac kills inside the hotel with no repercussions. There’s a red light system that, when active, allows murder on the grounds. If it’s that simple, why was the hotel’s neutral status being revoked in John Wick 3 such a big deal when all they needed to do was push a button? The hotel is home to the biggest action scenes of the series when tension should come from not being able to kill on the premises. It’s another reason why the hotel should be the hub for all these hitmen characters in an anthology show, a place of safety to retreat to each episode, rather than the narrative-driven location. I do like Cormac throwing people from the balcony to get around the rules, though. That’s fun.

But enough complaining, because, believe it or not after the last 1000 words, I did enjoy the series. There are a couple of key aspects it executes very well. I really enjoyed the jukebox, excessively 1970s nature of the show. Its very silly how insanely 1970s it is. The costumes and cars and constant needle drops offer a heightened cliché version of the time period that borders on parody. But it works, just like the John Wick films have a similar comic-book sensibility to its own noirish style. The key component of the show, the action, is thankfully great. Not to the level of the films but certainly better than anything else on television. The cutting of frames around punches to make them more impactful gets a bit annoying but other than that it’s fantastic, particularly the final episode. Yen and Gretel’s fight was a highlight.

It was frustrating to see all the wasted potential in The Continental but the miniseries we did get was still an enjoyable watch. It’s absolutely a show you can have fun with. It’s not what I wanted from this concept, I don’t know how good it objectively is, but it’s entertaining. It feels like those involved were too focused on making it similar to the John Wick films in all the ways it didn’t need to be. It tries too hard to maintain the scale and action, to copy the plot, instead of embracing what a TV format could offer an idea like The Continental. I wish it embraced the episodic and explored different perspectives, storytelling styles, and characters, rather than a straightforward prequel obsessed with answering questions nobody asked. But this miniseries existing doesn’t mean there can’t be another series focused on The Continental in the future, one that learns from the mistakes of this first attempt and truly continues to expand the world of John Wick.

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