Gangs of London begins and ends with someone getting shot in the face. Which is quite fitting when you consider the show’s habit of dispatching characters in sudden and gruesome ways. Both victims are powerful gangsters who aren’t at all expecting their sudden demise, and the ultimate irony in this brutal, sprawling underworld is that even the most influential kingpin can (and will) get clipped on a moment’s notice.
But what makes the hyper-violent and dense British gangster show so unique is how it thoroughly and objectively presents unimaginable images of carnage. In the show’s pilot episode, undercover cop Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu) fearlessly bullrushes a gang of Albanian thugs in order to gain acceptance into the famed Wallace Family, London’s most notorious criminal syndicate that’s currently in a state of transition after their patriarch Finn (Colm Meaney) was brutally murdered.
Set inside a cramped local pub, the brawl layers multiple fights happening simultaneously. Elliot scraps through one after the next, using everything from a broken pint glass to a throwing dart to maim his opponents. Intricate and fleet-footed like few other television crime sagas, the 10-episode first season is essentially a mosaic of intimate, brutal kill shots, none of which discriminate based on perceived authority.
If you’re familiar with creator Gareth Evans’ feature film work (The Raid: Redemption, The Raid 2), such horrible deaths by shotgun, machetes, and other assorted weapons should not be surprising. But where those films present numbing narratives that justify senseless wall-to-wall violence, Gangs of London strategically places these memorable set-pieces to amplify the finality of its characters’ bad decisions.
Take for instance the climax of Episode 3, where newly minted godfather Sean Wallace (Joe Cole) decides to raid a local Traveller encampment for their involvement in his father’s death. We initially see the attack unfold from inside one of the caravans, where the group’s leader Kinney Edwards (Mark Lewis Jones) prepares to make himself a cup of tea. Out of darkness walks a perfectly straight line of heavily armed figures.
Muzzle fire breaks out and the entire community is shredded by automatic weapon fire. I can’t remember an action sequence with such blunt directional force, where the fire power of one side so effectively overwhelms the other in a matter of seconds. This massacre not only sends a message to the other opportunistic cartels in the show, but to the audience as well - when the killing starts there will be no mercy.
Episode 6 depicts an almost identical siege that takes place in a different location. Another band of machine-gun toting killers descends on a farm house where poor Kinney, his ill-fated pawn of a son, and some of their compatriots are hiding out. This time, the attackers are a lethal squad of Danish Special Forces soldiers turned mercenaries working for the unseen, faceless, mega-powerful investors of the Wallace Syndicate who are trying to retain control of the organization by erasing all proof of their subterfuge.
Unlike the previous shoot-out, these underdogs have a chance to fight back in brave fashion despite heavy odds against them. To talk gory specifics would ruin the gut-wrenching madness and formal complexity of this 20+ minute scene, one of the finest action sequences in recent memory. But I will say that it further proves just how kinetic onscreen violence can be when constructed by an artist this enamored by pummeling details of genre iconography. Splintering wood and shattering glass liter the frame, while deafening gunfire proceeds eerie silence. Close contact framing helps increase the dramatic desperation, and Evans’ always creates a coherent sense of bodies and weapons sweeping through cinematic space.
Gangs of London avoids falling into the pitfalls of being an gratuitous exercise in action aesthetics. It owes a lot to the neo-gangster film where deception, greed, and loyalty are all simmering themes being deconstructed by the ghosts of colonialism. But it’s consistently brazen depiction of violence and death are more honest and refreshingly abrupt than any American R-rated action flick in the last decade. Many gangster films and shows aspire to a level of cold, cynical brutality with the hopes that it’ll make their characters seem terrifying. But with Gangs of London, Evans does just that by effortlessly bringing down the proverbial hammer time and again, and sidestepping all notions of moral hesitation.
Gangs of London is available to stream through AMC+.