Gangs of London

4 out of 5

Created by: Gareth Evans, Matt Flannery

covers season 1

The opening scene sets a particular tone for Gangs of London: an inverted camera shot of a dude, begging for his life, being hung over the edge of a London skyscraper; moments later, the camera pans in a swooping shot and rights itself, and we get a slo-mo release of gasoline and a lighter by Sean Wallace (Joe Cole), and watch our beggar go up in flames.

Style, violence: check.

Soon, we witness a teenager (Aled ap Steffan) hiding, panicked, inside a dilapidated apartment building, aiming a gun through a door at a well-to-do chap and pulling the trigger, bloodiness ensuing. This chap turns out to be Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), father of Sean, and co-head of an organization of – essentially – the gangs of London. Before we can piece together exactly what’s happening here, we’re following through on the aftermath: Sean taking control of the family, rather to the upset of Finn’s business partner, Ed (Lucian Msamati) and his son, Alex (Paapa Essiedu), the duo representing a more financially-minded, seemingly level-headed point of view to the fiery Wallace family’s focus on power and control. Then there’s low-rent Wallace thug Elliot, inciting intense bar fights for something-something-tired-of-putting-up-with-this reasons, except he turns out to be an undercover cop…

Conflicting allegiances, tons of characters, twisty plotting: check.

I wasn’t sure I needed another overwrought crime epic with all of the elements on my playlist, especially since most of them end up being series of stupid decisions, collections of unlikeable characters, and willfully substituting blood for story when it’s convenient, but a peek ahead at the series’ directors – co-creator Gareth Evans, Corin Hardy, and Xavier Gens – suggested an interesting tone. Evans has proven himself as capable of some heftier dramatics on Apostle, but is, of course, well known for the Raid action spectacles. Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens have not made flicks I’m particularly in love with, but they’re both known quantities in the horror genre. I was definitely curious what this type of visual mindset – guided by Gareth’s mindfulness of story blended with genre – might produce.

Gangs of London does contain all of the mentioned sins – dumb decisions, erring-toward-evil characters, and lots of bloodshed – but it does all of the right things to counter this, primarily by wrapping us up in the story of the Wallaces vs. the World, which gives a context for everything else. The series also smartly doesn’t hang on its twists: we discover the Whys of Finn’s killing step by step a few episodes in, so that the series may rightly focus fully on the power vacuum between families that occurs in its wake, instead of trying to juggle that with a faux-mystery at the same time. There are pauses for action along the way (Evans stepping in to direct when appropriate), but it’s not nearly as indulgent as it could be, and once the main revenges have been taken by the series’ midpoint, we settle more in to tense dramatics than out-and-out gunplay.

The excessive cast – the two main families; a Kurdish crew; Albanians; Pakistanis; a Welsh gang – certainly take a beat or two to parse how they all play in to things, but early episodes are spaced out to give the most important players the spotlight for that week; inevitably, some of those storylines end up feeling less relevant than others, suggesting there’s maybe a tighter version of the show that gives them less screentime, but while they’re on screen, those parts and their players feel relevant. Plus, it definitely gives the Wallace empire a world-wide sense of scope, showing how a “business” that appears to be centrally located – in London in this instance – can easily spiral out to multiple places.

As to the directors who had piqued my curiosity, Gens’ episodes felt the least “personal,” more going through the motions of the series’ style and guilty of tossing in violence for its own sake than making it feel required. They’re absolutely competently directed entries, but it’s where I became thankful that I was actually wrapped up in the story, and its themes of inevitability – of being raised in this life, and stuck on a certain path. Corin Hardy absolutely impressed, though: his episodes wielded a palpable moodiness, and navigated through both the dramatics and action equally well. Evans’ entries were, admittedly, the most spectacle-laden, and they were each mini action-masterpieces. Not to denigrate his non-action capabilities, but that seemed to be his focus here, and his episodes do not disappoint in that regard.

I passed on watching Gangs of London as it aired, because the description – gangs, wars, violence, etc. – was of a ‘been there, done that,’ variety. I came back mainly because of Evans, and I’m damn glad I did – I became much more invested in the characters’ interplay than I expected, and kept marveling at how the writers managed to escalate the inter-family squabbles throughout, continually pushing things to the line… All of the individual bits and pieces of the show have been done before, and probably to death, but as we’ve seen for decades, now, it’s all about how you tell the story, and the show tells it very well.