Blu-ray Review: Gangs of London, Season One | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Saturday, November 27th, 2021  

Gangs of London: Season One

Studio: RLJ Entertainment

Oct 18, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Gareth Evans burst onto the scene a decade ago with The Raid, a film that married the vicious Indonesian martial art of Pencak silat with the savage simplicity of a beat-em-up video game and action scenes that rivaled horror films in their commitment to gruesome violence. It’s a compelling aesthetic, but not something that would appeal to mass audiences. Gangs of London - created by Evans and his DP/writing partner Matt Flannery - is an attempt to sell that aesthetic under a veneer of modern prestige television. The ten episode first season is essentially an expanded remake of the The Raid: Berendal, transposing the action from Jakarta to London. Both tell the stories of an undercover cop infiltrating an organized crime syndicate in the midst of a massive war between various multi-ethnic factions of gangsters.

The show begins with the seemingly random assassination of Finn Wallace, the most powerful gangster in London, king of a real estate empire that includes multiple towers in the city skyline. As his volatile younger son Shaun takes control of the Wallace family interests, he finds himself beset on all sides by Pakistani drug kingpins, Kurdish militants, Albanian mobsters, Danish hitmen and shadowy “legitimate” investors. It’s plain from the start that the show is trading on the popularity of Game of Thrones, transposing the concept of numerous warring families from a fantasy setting to a present-day urban environment. This is made even more explicit by the casting of Michelle Fairley as the Wallace family matriarch, a character that is essentially a more homicidal version of Catelyn Stark. The casting overall is something of a mixed bag, with Joe Cole being a bit too sleepy-eyed and reserved for the live-wire Shaun Wallace. The real find is the secondary protagonist Elliot Finch, played by Sope Dirisu. Introduced as a low-level enforcer in the Wallace organization, the second episode reveals him to be an undercover cop carrying a truckload of baggage and some vicious fighting skills. Dirisu is a fine emotional anchor for the show as well, which has brings little new to the table when it comes to undercover cop and mob narratives, but Dirisu’s stunt capabilities and open, emotive face keep you with him through every bloody encounter.

The pacing of the show, which balances nearly a dozen criss-crossing factions, prioritizes action beats over storytelling in some cases, which is honestly a smart choice given the show’s strengths and weaknesses, although it does cause some problems. While the action is top notch from the beginning and almost every episode closes with a barnburner sequence, it takes until the fourth episode before the plot throws anything resembling a curve ball. It’s no coincidence that the fourth episode centers around Lale, a Kurdish militant turned heroin smuggler who funnels the funds of her fledgling empire back to freedom fighters in her homeland. Played with a steely charm by Iranian actress Sarges Rashidi, she’s one of the few characters other than Finch that is elevated beyond an archetype.

Of course, archetypes are really all you need if the main draw is the action, and Gangs of London delivers on that front. Even the most celebrated action films of the modern era - your John Wicks or your Mission Impossibles - prioritize slickness and palatability in their violence, with minuscule CGI squibs and fluid choreography. As fans of the Raid films will already know, Evans and Flannery don’t play that nice. The violence in Gangs of London is genuinely horrific, with graphic stabbings, shotguns to the face and compound fractures only being the tip of the iceberg. The action scene that ends the first episode is a pub fight in which Finch is armed with a single bar dart. If anything the show peaks too early in this regard. The most impressive and breathless sequence by far is the fifteen minute storming of a rural safe-house at the end of episode six - a flashback episode that revolves around secondary characters no less - that shows off not only Evans and Flannery’s facility with gore but also their terrific use of space, sound and attention to tactical detail. In a just world, every writer, editor and director would be forced to watch it before even attempting an action sequence.
It feels strange to say, but Gangs of London ironically devolves into a prestige drama in the end, with a final episode that features no real action and a fairly predictable twist. It’s a balancing act the show admirably attempts but never fully pulls off. But the idea that the action scenes will only get bigger with a second season is more than enough reason for any action fan to tune in. There’s nothing like this being done in American action cinema or television.


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