“I’m not interested in peace.”
That crazy Welshman Gareth Evans has done it again. After introducing the world to a different type of action in 2011’s The Raid and it’s 2014 sequel, Evans dabbled in folklore and horror for the excellent Apostle. Now he turns his gaze to television, for the Sky/Cinemax crime series Gangs of London – an operatic epic about exactly that; the brutal (fictional) gangs and families in London. It has a super-high bodycount and buckets of blood, but how is the nine-issue series as a whole?
The story revolves around the Wallace family, namely Joe Cole’s Sean Wallace (no, not that Shaun Wallace). After the death of the family patriarch Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), it’s up to Sean to step up. And the world the Wallace family inhabits is not for the fainthearted. In this brutal version of London, the crime on the capital’s streets is split between a series of families. They all stay in line and work together for the good of the business. After all, it’s mutually assured destruction; if one family slips up then it’s war for the rest. But that careful truce is thrown into disarray when Finn Wallace is shot in the face but two low-level thugs in a squalid tenement block. Who hired them? Who would want Finn dead? What was he doing at those flats with a bag of cash? The problem is that any one of the Wallace business partners is a suspect.
You might recognise Joe Cole from Peaky Blinders, but he gives a completely different sort of performance here. Sure there are similarities in the subject matter, but Sean Wallace is a very different man to John Shelby. Sean is a nasty piece of work. We’re introduced to him burning a man and throwing him from a building – and his kills only rack up from there. But it becomes apparent that he’s not completely invested in this life as the show goes on, that he’s just doing what his father made him do, being who Finn moulded him into. And Cole is just a really great actor, going from cruel and ruthless in the first half of the show to something completely different by the end. He’s a character who may not command respect, but people fear him for his unpredictability. And that makes him a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
But the star of the show, and probably the protagonist, is Elliot, played by relative newcomer Sope Dirisu. Elliot is trying to get close to the Wallace’s, for a few different reasons, and achieves his aim by throwing himself head-first into every fight and shootout that Sean orders. Softly-spoken and with a tragic history, Elliot is the heart of Gangs of London. He is experiencing this craziness for the first time, right alongside us. He also gets the majority of the action scenes, and there are a fair few. The mix of balletic physicality and an all-round excellent performance should make Dirisu a guy to look out for.
There are a number of really great performances throughout the nine-episode run, and a very welcome diversity among the cast that truly reflects the city of London. Some of my favourites are Michelle Fairley as matriarch Marian Wallace; Lucian Msamati as sneaky confidant Ed Dumani; and Orli Shuka as the unexpectedly engrossing leader of the Albanian mafia. On top of this, the world feels so incredibly rich. Like with The Raid 2, Evans delivers a labyrinthine crime epic, but one that all come together in the end. Every character is interesting, the dialogue and performances are melodramatic and intense, making the whole thing feel grand and Shakespearean. Combined with some really stunning cinematography and awesome musical cues, it’s a really well put-together series of television. But, despite all of this praise, the main draw of Gangs of London is the action.
It’s Gareth Evans, so you expect a certain something when it comes to the action scenes. You expect the frenetic camerawork, the inventive choreography, as gallons of the red stuff. And this show delivers from episode one and only gets better from there. There are two many great set-pieces to dissect. A bloody fight with a cleaver in episode one sets the bar high, a fight with an axe in episode three is somehow even bloodier, people are gunned down in really well done shootouts, and the body count is probably in triple digits by the time the credits roll on episode nine. And it’s gory, apparently too gory for some people. Considering that a lot of the people involved with the show have dabbled in horror, it’s not surprising. Fingernails are pulled out and eyes are gouged. But Gangs of London always feels like it’s in a heightened version of the city, so this craziness always gels with the familial drama and thriller aspects – for me at least.
I want to highlight one action set-piece in particular, the one I think Gangs of London will be famous for. In episode five, the action is shifted away from all of our main players to rural Wales. Here, with Evans at the helm, the show delivers thirty minutes of tense build-up as the pieces fall into place, and another thirty minutes of all-out action. It’s like Assault on Precinct 13 – if Precinct 13 was a Welsh country house and the gang members were Danish Special Forces. The inventive camerawork, excellent choreography, and genuinely jaw-dropping gore is best showcased here in this episodes, which is every bit as good as Evans’ previous work.
Obviously, I understand Gangs of London won’t be for everyone. The title alone will probably put some people off – and attract a whole different bunch. Some people might be picturing a contemporary English gangster movie, like something you find in a bargain bin and that probably stars Danny Dyer or Tamer Hassan. But for me it shares more in common with the colourful bat-shit insanity of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, or the operatic absurdity that makes Peaky Blinders so much fun. There’s definitely nothing else like it on TV.