Violent crime is an ugly, gruesome experience, both as participant and witness, and adding “organized” to the phrase doesn’t soften it one bit. Television and movies have shown us numerous variations on organized crime families over the years, and they’ve often featured scenes of unrepentant, gruesome violence. Few, though, if any, have paired the classic tales of power struggles, criminal enterprises, and family drama with as brutally violent and beautifully choreographed action as the new series Gangs of London. Think of it as in the vein of Macbeth meets The Raid 2, and you’ll be in the right mindset for all the thrills it has to offer.
[Note: This review covers the first five episodes of Gangs of London‘s first season. Don’t worry if you’re not caught up yet, though, as it’s fairly light on spoilers.]
The Wallace family runs London’s seedy underbelly, and Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney) runs the family. When he’s shot point blank in the face and killed, though, it’s his son Sean (Joe Cole) who takes up the reins of London’s most powerful and feared organization — the Wallace Corporation. It’s not just a crime family and their henchmen, as the Wallaces also run one of the city’s biggest building developers with ties to London’s deep pockets and beyond. Sean’s brother Billy (Brian Vernel) is more addicted to drugs than he is to the necessities of gangster life, and their sister is pregnant and trying to avoid it all. Their mother, Marian (Michelle Fairley), watches over the carnage in the belief that this is what it means to survive.
Sean’s thirst for vengeance in his pursuit for his father’s killer threatens both their illicit business and their legitimate one, and soon other players are eyeing the line of succession and planning their own power plays. Some are longtime associates, others are smaller crime families tired of working beneath Wallace’s thumb, and one is a nobody in the organization named Elliot (Sope Dirisu). Yesterday Sean didn’t even know his name, but today he’s proving himself a more than worthy warrior for the family despite some murky motivations.
Gangs of London is bursting at the well-tailored seams with cruelly engaging characters and factions, all competing for power and profit, but the series’ most immediately compelling aspect is the action. Credit co-creator Gareth Evans — he of The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014) fame — for bringing the same kinetic sensibilities that make those films modern action classics to this deceptively more grounded crime series.
Evans and co-creator Matt Flannery ensure all of the expected aspects of a traditional crime tale are present, but while there is some police presence the bulk of the series stays with the criminals. From Sean and his direct cronies to other criminal groups, the series brings numerous characters on representing the worst that London has to offer. Fittingly for one of the world’s most culturally and internationally diverse big cities, the various players come from places well beyond England. They’re all villains, but only one even hints at antihero status — Lale (Narges Rashidi), a Kurdish freedom fighter who runs a London-based drug ring that provides soldiers and families back in Kurdistan with money, food, and weapons. There’s empathy for her cause, but given the chance she’s every bit at ice cold as the others.
The large cast could threaten to grow unwieldy, but concise writing and direction — Evans helms a couple episodes while genre vets Corin Hardy (The Hallow, 2015) and Xavier Gens (Frontier(s), 2007) direct the remaining — ensure viewers don’t get lost in the violent and bloody weeds. Attractive cinematography and a growing sense of world-building add to the depth and density of the series, and the international cast is refreshing in a genre that’s often far more narrow. The story beats are familiar enough on the grand scale making it easy to follow along and focus on what exactly makes the show stand apart from a crowded field.
Fans of Evans’ Raid films already have a good sense what to expect from the action and fight scenes — they’re ferocious, bloody, and almost always to the death. The show wisely paces these set-pieces so viewers typically get one per episode. Most are brawls lacking in the grace and methodical precision of martial arts as they instead devolve into brutal combat as characters fight for their lives. Elliot is the main bad-ass here in the fight department, and Dirisu takes to Evans’ deliriously physical style like an old pro. He’s fast and agile, and you believe the beatings he’s handing out and receiving. There are gun fights too, but as thrilling as they are it’s these throwdowns that make the series must-see television for action aficionados. Everything and anything becomes a possible weapon when wielded with cruel efficiency.
Gangs of London comes to the US this October via AMC, and a second season is already in pre-production. The storylines may not find a fresh angle, but the writing is sharp enough and the cast strong enough to make these characters compelling from one episode to the next. Still, it’s the action scenes you’ll be thinking about in the days that follow. Evans probably won’t ever get around to a third Raid film, but shows like this suggest he hasn’t lost his taste for human mayhem.