Gangs of London review – a thrilling dose of capital punishment
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The opening episode of this grisly drama about a crime family and their multitude of rivals might be more human flesh than fleshed-out characters, but it promises to be a wild ride.
If, nearly 20 years on, you still have nightmares about Lisa Faulkner’s head going into that industrial deep-fat fryer in Spooks, then Sky Atlantic’s new 10-part series Gangs of London is probably not for you. It starts with a severely beaten man hanging upside-down off a building and only gets further away from Mary Poppins territory from there.
But if you are nightmare-free, or not made peaky by the Blinders’ ways with a switchblade, you are in for a treat. Even the most brutal bits look beautiful and the story whips by so fast you will barely notice, much less care, that none of it is particularly new.
Co-written by Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery, who made their names working on Indonesian martial arts films, Gangs of London centres on the Wallaces, a family of gangsters who are the premier predators in the city’s underworld. They marshal their rival gangs in a loose coalition, ensuring everyone can go about their lucrative businesses relatively unmolested.
So, when the Wallace patriarch, Finn (Colm Meaney), is assassinated, all hell breaks loose. We know it was done by a young lad, Darren, from the Travellers’ gang, but we don’t know who ordered the hit. The Wallaces suspect the Albanians, as the killing took place on their turf. Everyone else suspects everyone else, but nobody is too bothered except insofar as it affects business.
But affect business it does. The Wallace empire is nominally headed by the man who built it alongside Finn – Ed (Lucian Msamati), his best friend since their hardscrabble childhood as victims of the “No blacks, no Irish” attitude that faced their families in 50s England.
His attempts to keep everything on track while they find Finn’s murderer are undone in an instant by Finn’s hotheaded son and heir, Sean (Joe Cole), who wants retribution, as soon and as bloodily as possible. He announces the end of all factions’ freedom to operate until the killer is found.
As the hunt expands, a lowly Wallace footsoldier, Elliot (a superb Sope Dirisu), seizes an opportunity to rise up the ranks. This is mostly achieved via two astonishing set pieces. First, a mass fight in a pub that looks scornfully at any other British pub brawl committed to film and says: “Hold my beer.”
It involves a glass ashtray becoming part of someone’s face – before both are shattered on the edge of the bar – and a dart perforating more people more unpleasantly than you would have thought possible. Elliot barely has time to catch his breath before we are on to the second piece of impeccably choreographed carnage. This one involves a man mountain, a cleaver and no witnesses.
Although the violence is explicit and extreme, it is not – quite – mindless. Its victims’ fear is palpable. Sometimes, so is its perpetrators’. It is almost a living, breathing being in some scenes, most notably in the pre-assassination of Finn and in the awful knowledge that falls on Finn’s loyal henchman as Ed talks to him on the sofa towards the end of the first episode. The violence is not integral to the story – they have chosen to include it, especially in such a form – but it is not shorn of all context or consequences.
Overall, Gangs of London promises to be a wild and wildly polished ride, even before the twist at the end of the 90-minute opener. By the end, only Elliot has been granted enough humanity to make him anything more than a chess piece in the service of the plot, but there are hints elsewhere of more fleshing-out of others to come, which should keep viewers engaged during the bits where flesh itself is not flying.
Sean’s weight-throwing is obviously masking some deeper doubts and insecurities; his sister Jackie is alienated from the family for reasons yet to be explored; and Ed’s son Alex seems to have some secrets. The question of quite what makes a family – how strong loyalties can be without a blood tie, how weak they can be despite them – runs underneath the whole story. If it is not sacrificed to spectacle in the coming weeks, there is going to be something really good here.