If you’re not a massive fan of Guy Ritchie or Vinnie Jones a new show called Gangs Of London might sound a bit off putting. Do yourself a favor and ignore those instincts. This is comfortably one of the very best shows Sky, or indeed anyone, has released in some time. A massive, cinematic epic, this show is likely to be talked about in the same breath as Game Of Thrones for its incredible scale, complex politics and its sense that any character could be killed at any moment.
Gangs Of London is about organised crime in the capital, for sure, but it’s a million miles from your average geezer-pleaser. You don’t have to have any interest whatsoever in gangsters to get hooked on Gangs Of London. But you do have to have a strong stomach for violence.
A nine-episode series, the pilot is feature-length and directed by the show’s co-creator (with Matt Flannery) Gareth Evans, the Welsh director behind The Raid films which brought the Indonesian martial art pencak silat to Western audiences.
In it we’re introduced to the Wallaces, the most important criminal family in London. Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney) and his right hand man Ed Dumani (Lucian Msamati) built the business from scratch but now their empire is in disarray. Finn has been assassinated and it falls to his son Sean (Joe Cole) to find out who ordered the hit and get the Wallace house in order.
Set in what Evans calls a “Gothamized” London, it’s a heightened world that’s both familiar and strange whether you know the city or not. Evans opted to remove the major landmarks from the skyline, yet the feeling of the different boroughs the show traverses are distinct and recognisable. The capital is the perfect setting for a show like this, an absolute cultural melting pot of organised crime which can at times be hard to follow. We meet the Albanians and the Kurds, the Nigerians and the Pakstanis as well as the travelling community who’ve been inadvertently been dragged into the frey. Each faction has different objectives and allegiances attached to different parts of the underworld, and the Wallaces ‘business’ concerns cover protection for the gangs controlling the docks, the drug trade, property development, money laundering and more.
At the centre of the show, Joe Cole is electric as Sean, the “boy who would watch cities burn to prove he’s a man”. A refined maniac, drunk on grief and power, holding court in front of the most influential and dangerous people in the city, Sean calls a complete moratorium on all criminal activity until he finds his father’s killer, an unpopular decision, with repercussions.
Gangs Of London is a family melodrama as well as a violent thriller, with relationships tested between the Wallaces – mum (Michelle Fairly), a dignified Lady Macbeth type, her boys Sean and Billy (Brian Vernel) her daughter Jackie (Valene Kane), the one family member who seems to have escaped – and their surrogate family the Dumanis.
Then there’s Elliot (Sope Dirisu), the closest we get to a ‘hero’, a former squaddy and low level thug who spots an opportunity to rise through the ranks by getting close to the vulnerable Sean. His path becomes more important as the show progresses, and Dirisu is tasked with a lot of heavy lifting when it comes to fight sequences. Not formerly a trained martial artist (in any meaningful way) Dirisu has risen to the challenge with panache, and he’s mesmerising to watch in action.
Let’s talk about that violence though. Gangs Of London opens with a man being set on fire and dropped off a building. He’s an incidental character we don’t hear about again and it’s an intro which sets out the show’s stall clearly. There will be blood. People will be burned alive and drowned in concrete, teeth and fingernails will be ripped out, and there will be more shootings, stabbings and pummellings than it’s possible to keep track of. This isn’t exactly glamorized violence, but Evans does bring his East Asian influences to the show, with certain set pieces so carefully choreographed they feel like dances. Other times Gangs Of London leans heavily into horror – grim, gory and relentless. There’s a trickle of black humour in there, too, of the very darkest kind.
Joining Evans on directing duties are Corin Hardy, best known for The Hallow, The Nun and not quite directing a remake of The Crow, and Xavier Gens, who made grim horror movies Frontier(s) and The Divide as well as computer game adap Hitman. The show is a coherent whole but each episode is distinctive – whether it’s for a standout set piece, an illuminating flash back or a key cliffhanger. They’re all great, but as is expected, certain episodes dazzle especially. The pilot is a rollercoaster and deftly juggles multiple threads, cultures and characters. Lale’s (Narges Rashidi) story in episode three is shocking and powerful, while episode five feels like a whole movie in itself.
Perhaps too bleak to be binged, you may want to savour each episode and pick apart the complexities of the plot, as well as taking time to appreciate the gorgeous cinematography, pin sharp sound design, incredible ensemble cast and action sequences that are at least as good as anything you’ll find in the cinema.
Gangs Of London is an impressive, explosive, thrilling must-watch for fans of epic action and twisty narrative who can stomach a bit (a lot) of gore. No low budget gangland grot here: Gangs Of London runs with the TV big guns.
All nine episodes of Gangs Of London are available on Sky (UK) and Cinemax (US).