‘Gangs of London’ Carves New Territory for British Mobsters, Usually in Rivals’ Faces

Gangs of London” wastes no time in burning itself into distinction. The very first scene is a blazer. A poor nobody dangles, upside down, from the top of a London high-rise, pleading for his life. We think we know how it’s going to end. There is no way someone would have gone to the trouble of setting this scenario up just to issue a pardon. But it takes an unexpected turn, for the far worse. This is the show’s modus operandi. If an episode doesn’t end on a turn, it ends with a twist of a knife. 

“Gangs of London” focuses on the Wallaces, London’s top crime family. They control everything illegal in the city, including rival gangs’ rackets.  The first episode kills off the family patriarch, Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), and his son Sean’s (Joe Cole) first order of business is to close down business until his father’s assassin is found. This goes against the orders of Ed Dumani (Lucian Msamati), Finn’s best friend and what looks like the British equivalent of a consigliere. The pair came up on the streets of 1950s England when a “No Blacks, no Irish” policy kept them from coming inside. They not only gained entry to the best rooms in town, but they held the keys which let in an international class of criminals.

The modern London underground is a cultural melting pot of loosely organized criminals who pay the Wallace family for protection and blessings on their illicit operations. The gangs control the docks, the drugs, money laundering and construction in the city. At Finn Wallace’s funeral, Dumani eulogizes that he and his partner were “illegitimate bastard children of the great British Empire.” Now they hold court over a crime empire of Albanians, Kurds, Nigerians, Pakstanis, Jamaicans, Iranians and the Russian mafia. The heads of all the families attend the services and the summits dressed immaculately. All of them have a reason to put a hit out on Finn. The actual killing is done by Darren, a low-level thief from a Travellers’ gang which runs under the mobs’ radar. Finn took his last look through a peephole in the city’s Little Albania, so the Wallaces figure the Albanian crime family ordered the hit. But it could have been anyone. 

The modern London sets are effectively imaginative, especially the grittier ones. One particularly nasty skirmish happens in a place where it looks like snuff films are made, not intentionally but in real life when there’s no industry shooting going on. The scene stars a meat cleaver. The shades of grey London look like Gotham-on-the-Thames at times and some of the mobsters look like they would fit better in a horror movie, like “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” than a gangster film. Others look like modern day Oliver Twists. David Bradley, who is best known for playing Argus Filch in the “Harry Potter” movies and Walder Frey on “Game of Thrones,” looks and sounds exactly like he did on those and other parts. 

“Peaky Blinders” actor Joe Cole brings a cold undertone to his manic ruthlessness. Sean is a “boy who would watch cities burn to prove he’s a man.” It’s little wonder when one of the family’s rites of passage is youthful murder. They learn they can be kings once they know it’s a kill or be killed world. Sean’s mother Marian, played by Michelle Fairley of “Game of Thrones,” is an ASMR Machiavellian. Now that she is Widow Macbeth, she encourages the Hamlet in Sean. Her daughter Jackie (Valene Kane) is so alienated from the family, she needs both her brothers, Sean and Billy (Brian Vernel), to ensure social distancing at her own father’s funeral.

Wallace family soldier Elliot (Sope Dirisu) is a virtual one-man army, and apparently a championship- level dart player. But he is no Luca Brasi. He sees an opportunity to climb the family tree and shake it down. He’s also a bit of a masochist who likes to top from the bottom. The leverage is better for an uppercut. The series was created by writer-director team Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery. They came up through the Indonesian martial arts film industry. Their 2011 film “The Raid” featured long takes of bare-knuckled fight choreography. 

“Gangs of London” has one of the best knock-em-down drag-em out bar fights in recent memory. It gives a new meaning to pub crawl. If you’re looking for violence, it’s here, all over and not just with guns and knives. Bricks, tire irons, glass ashtrays, and cocktail olive pincers handily become weapons, and lethal ones. As writers, Evans and Flannery must have a special thesaurus for implements of pain. There is a lot of kicking and punching, gouging and slashing. Faces are dragged against cement walls, leaving a bloody trace, or crushed into car engines, lubricating the transmission. Legs break, fingers pop, stomachs explode and teeth implode. It doesn’t just scare the audience. Everyone involved in the majority of the brilliantly choreographed fight scenes are petrified. 

Wild and fun to watch as they are, the action sequences are too polished, and occasionally ridiculous. Mobsters don’t move out of the way of slow-motion bullets like they do in the “Kingsman” British spy series, but are overly complex and hyper-kinetic. The choreography and camera angles feel like dances. There is drama between the violence, though a lot of the dialog sounds more soapily operatic than mobster-saga epic. The ensemble acting is consistently incredible, and maintains a balance between all the violence and the inner conflict within the, often broody, characters. 

Also directing some episodes are horror filmmakers Corin Hardy, who directed “The Nun,” and Xavier Gens, who made “The Divide.” The series is very reminiscent of the British gangster thrillers from Guy Ritchie, Vinnie Jones, Matthew Vaughn, and Eran Creevy. It also owes a debt to Quentin Tarantino, and even “The Godfather,” with consigliere Dumani pulling the show’s version of the “Sorry Tessio, can’t do it” scene. The plot is really nothing new, and it has all the gangster tropes. It’s got its rats and it’s got an undercover cop who gets so far inside the organization only a suppository will get him out. But it also has an individual vision for televised crime drama. “Gangs of London” does a good job of building its own mythology, and establishing what may very well be a new mob dynasty. 

Gangs of London” begins streaming Oct. 1 with new episodes streaming every Thursday on AMC+.