SKY TV REVIEW – GANGS OF LONDON (2020)
Created by: Gareth Evans, Matt Flannery
Directors: Gareth Evans (2 episodes), Corin Hardy (4 episodes), Xavier Gens (3 episodes)
Executive producer(s): Thomas Benski, Lucas Ochoa, Jane Featherstone, Gabriel Silver
Producer(s): Hugh Warren
Writers: Claire Wilson, Peter Berry, Joe Murtagh, Gareth Evans, Matt Flannery, Lauren Sequeira, Carl Joos,
Cast: Joe Cole, Sope Dirisu, Lucian Msamati, Michelle Fairley, Mark Lewis Jones, Narges Rashidi, Parth Thakerar, Asif Raza Mir, Valene Kane, Brian Vernel, Jing Lusi, Pippa Bennett-Warner, Orli Shuka, Richard Harrington, Jude Akuwudike, Emmett J. Scanlan, Colm Meaney etc.
Production company(s): Pulse Films, Sister Pictures, Sky Studios
The British, or more specifically, London-based gangster narrative is a well-trodden pathway for writers, directors and filmmakers. In fact, when Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) was a low-budget sleeper hit, agents and film companies were never more than a few feet away from a cheeky-chappie-laddish-gangster script. Ritchie obviously has made his name in the crime genre and his most recent film, The Gentlemen (2020), was another rollicking piece of entertainment. However, Ritchie’s stylish geezer model doesn’t always show the serious side of the British crime yarn. Films such as: Villain (1971), Get Carter (1971), The Long Good Friday (1980), Mona Lisa (1986), The Krays (1990), Sexy Beast (2000), Legend (2015), and many more, represent the dark and brutal face of hard-nut masculinity and the profession of violence. Enter the new Sky drama, Gangs of London (2020), which over nine episodes pitches itself as a similarly stern contemporary gangster fable, but with lashings of explosive action set-pieces, savage fisticuffs and a few severed hands thrown in for good measure.
From the opening scene — which finds heir apparent to the Wallace Corporation, Sean (Joe Cole), burning alive and dropping a low-level hoodie off a sky-scraping construction building — the brutal tone is set. Flashbacks then reveal the reason for Sean’s ire. His father, Finn (Colm Meaney), was murdered while on the Albanian mafia’s turf and thus he demands revenge. So far, so Hamlet! Yet, this is no singular character’s journey into the psychological depths of real or invented madness. Mostly, we find a sprawling, multicultural and international ensemble piece with the world of crime represented by aforementioned Albanians, Nigerians, Kurdish freedom fighters, Chinese gangs, Pakistani drug cartels, Welsh travellers and various other criminal elements.
While there is some soul searching for Sean as Finn Wallace’s buried secrets are latterly exposed within the drama, this is very much a symbolic and sadistic manifestation of Brexit. Moreover, it critiques the rise of gangster culture from the mean capital streets into the corporate boardroom. The Wallace’s billion-pound construction business acts as a front for money laundering, drugs deals, prostitution, people smuggling, gun-running and other nefarious crimes. Business has never been so good; that is until Finn Wallace is killed. Henceforth, all hell breaks loose on the streets of London and the police, who all seem to be in the pockets of the gangs, are unable or unwilling to control it.
The gangster genre can be a challenge for writers, directors and actors as they attempt to sidestep the cliches. Moreover, these stories predominantly show violent and amoral characters attacking or cheating or back-stabbing one another. Thus, it can be difficult to create empathy for such nasty people. Nonetheless, given the continued success of such narratives, the anti-heroic ensemble represented by the likes of the Wallace, Dumani, Afridi, Dushaj and Edwards’ families, among others, give the audience plenty to get our teeth into. There are so many different characters, motives, actions and desires on show that the sheer pace and twists in the narrative can leave one breathless. That isn’t to say the pace is rapid. There is a brooding suspense and grave depth to the overall direction. At times the drama, as well as the casting of Michelle Fairley (Lady Stark), reminded me of Game of Thrones in crime form. It gives us high-quality genre storytelling interspersed with some incredibly violent fight scenes and shoot-outs. It doesn’t quite have the heroes that Games of Thrones had though. The closest we get to a rootable character is Sope Dirisu’s low-level enforcer, Elliott Finch, who has a big secret to hold onto. Dirisu gives a powerful performance both emotionally and physically as he fights his way up the Wallace chain of command.
Gangs of London (2020) was created by Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery for Cinemax and Sky Studios. Evans, of course, is the talented Welsh filmmaker who had to go all the way to Indonesia and direct Merantau (2009), The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014), in order to make a name for himself in the film industry. He is a director with a special set of skills, especially when it comes to the knuckle-breaking and heart-stabbing fight sequences. Thus, the episodes he directs stand out among the best of the series. Notably Episodes 1 and 5, which feature an incredible bare-knuckled-table-leg-glass-in-the-face bar fracas and a bloody-mercenary-raid-on-a- country-farmhouse set-piece respectively. The remainder of the series arguably pales a little where the action is concerned, however, there remains some shockingly grotesque acts of violence as the corpses mount up the further the series proceeds. Indeed, as Sean Wallace attempts to locate his father’s killer and order from the chaos, he will find little in the way of salvation, redemption and satisfaction in the life of a London gangster. If only he’d watched more crime films, he’d know that already.