Gareth Evans doesn’t waste any time telling us what kind of show Gangs of London is going to be. The first five minutes of this premiere episode — featuring a beat-to-hell guy dangling by one foot off the side of a skyscraper and then being set on fire and then being dropped however many stories to the ground in what is a horrendously agonizing, deeply gruesome death — make clear that Gangs of London is not messing around. “Remember The Raid movies?” Evans seems to be saying. “That bit of the old ultraviolence was me, and Gangs of London is me too!” With this incredibly declarative opening scene, Gangs of London begins, unfurling over the ensuing hour into a sort of Game of Thrones by way of Eastern Promises saga of crime and punishment.
Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney) is dead. The Irish immigrant, husband of Marian (Michelle Fairley, one of many familiar Game of Thrones faces to pop up), father of three adult children, and leader of London’s largest criminal empire, has been murdered, shot in the neck and the face and left to bleed out upon the grimy floor of an apartment building in London’s Albanian district. His driver, Jack (Emmett J. Scanlan), is missing. These are all the details the Wallace family knows one week after Finn’s murder, and younger son Sean (Joe Cole, of Peaky Blinders and Green Room) is pissed. He’s the one who dangled that boy off the building and lit him on fire, and he wants answers. “What else can I do?” Sean asks when the boy pleads for his life, and that mixture of resignation and fury is clearly going to define Cole’s performance for a while.
Cut to one week earlier! I think the young man we just saw Sean kill is Ioan (Darren Evans), friend of Darren Edwards (Aled ap Steffan), who receives a text message on a burner phone to a specific location: Melton Commons. Darren collects his gun, driver Ioan, and a borrowed car, leaves the campsite where their Welsh Romani community is posted up, and travels to this run-down apartment building in the middle of London. And it takes no time at all for Ioan to realize that they’ve made a major mistake taking this hit: The sight of that gigantic silver car sends hoodlums running, and the sight of the man who climbs out of it — the aforementioned Finn Wallace — send Ioan into full-body shivers. But at this point, the deed is already halfway done. Darren doesn’t pick up Ioan’s frantic phone call telling him to stop and walk away. Two bullets go out of Darren’s gun and into Finn’s face, leaving him to die there in a pool of his own blood and his own money. Ioan smashes his car into Finn’s bodyguard Jack in his desperation to gather Darren and escape. And one week later, it seems like Sean has found, and killed, Ioan. Where is Darren?
That question consumes Sean, but there is a massive, sprawling network of other crime families and gangs in London who relied on Finn, and although they mourn his death to a certain degree, they’re more concerned about their business. They shut down operations for a week after Finn’s death, and product isn’t moving and no one is making money. Everything seems to revolve around the ports, and the business is protected by various police officers and other officials the Wallaces have paid off. Gangs of London uses a combined funeral and, in the words of Stringer Bell, “criminal fucking conspiracy” meeting to introduce the myriad players. In the Wallace family, there’s Sean, who is consumed with avenging his father and perhaps taking over his business; older son Billy (Brian Vernel), who I’m guessing has a heroin problem given his mother’s panicked fidgeting with his belt; and sister Jacqueline (Valene Kane), who is pregnant and seems estranged from Marian in particular. Next are the Dumanis, who were Finn’s closest allies and business partners: Ed (Lucian Msamati), who considered Finn a brother; son Alex (Paapa Essiedu, of I May Destroy You), who is giving off a real “I have my own side thing going” vibe; and daughter Shannon (Pippa Bennett-Warner), single mom to the young Danny (Taye Matthew).
Many years before, the Dumanis and Wallaces — both immigrant families, described poignantly by Ed as “illegitimate bastard children of the great British empire” in his eulogy for Finn — lived together, and Sean and Alex grew up like brothers. But it’s Alex and Ed who present a united front to their criminal partners, who seem to fall into four camps, each responsible for a different part of this business. There’s Lale (Narges Rashidi), whose money is being laundered through the Wallaces; Wong (Kwong Loke), whose cargo the Wallaces receive; and Nasir (Parth Thakerar), whose father’s trade routes the Wallaces protect. And there’s also the Albanians, who aren’t invited to the meeting or the funeral, and whose territory Finn was murdered on. Sean, Ed, and Alex are convinced that Albanian leader Luan (Orli Shuka) had something to do with Finn’s death, and although Sean allows him to attend the funeral, it’s more of a “keep your enemies closer” type of thing.
This is a lot of people to keep track of, and a lot of varying interests, but I think Evans intentionally gives Lale, Nasir, and Luan particular attention. Lale is a fantastic early villain, all sneering condescension toward Sean, and she has the best line of the episode in her dismissal of him: “He has known one death. One. He’s a child.” Nasir seemingly wants nothing to do with the Wallace business and is only there as a representative for his father, Asif; what does that mean for Alex, who seems to have some kind of secret arrangement with him? And I’m not sure yet if we can consider Luan trustworthy. The Albanians roll deep when they show up at this funeral, and they’re so insistent that they’re not hiding something that they probably are.
… Which, in fact, gets proved in the episode’s final third, which shifts to the members in the lower levels of these gangs. While the heads of the families, decked out in their best fits and their sharpest cuts, are all in the gorgeous church where Finn is being mourned, the bodyguards, the drivers, and all the men further down past the seconds-in-command coalesce at the Horseshoe, a nearby bar. They’re watched over by Wallace men Jim (David Bradley) and Elliot (Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù), the former of whom worked for Finn for 20 years without ever meeting him, and the latter of whom is a newer addition and desperate to make a good impression. (Aside from, you know, partially stealing some of Jim’s pay.) When Elliot realizes that the Albanians are seemingly up to something, and sees a large group of Wallace men arrive to meet with Alex, he puts two and two together and recognizes the guy on the CCTV video of the night when Finn died and Jack disappeared. (The video is given to Alex by a paid-off detective, seemingly one of many the Wallaces and Dumanis have in their pockets.) That whole “ready to prove himself” thing morphs Elliot into an absolute badass as he hunts down Besmir (Florist Bajgora), a low-level member of the Albanian crime family whom Elliot previously saw trying to speak with Luan before being brushed off.
These final few minutes of the episode, with Elliot going all beast mode through this bar in pursuit of Besmir, is Gareth Evans at his absolute bonkers best. Everything is a weapon! A glass ashtray shoved in a guy’s mouth; a knee broken on the 90-degree angle of the wraparound bar; Elliot’s own body (I’m pretty sure he breaks someone’s neck by just flipping him); a dart that Elliot uses to slash and stab; and a concrete wall that Elliot slides someone face against, leaving a sticky trail of blood. Evans shoots this with his customary long takes and herky-jerky angles, and the result is immersive and bone-crunching. And when Elliot gets his man, he learns that Finn’s driver, Jack, is still alive and that Besmir has him, but “he don’t say shit.” What secrets can Jack share with Elliot that he wouldn’t with the Albanians? Is it wise for Elliot to go see Jack himself, rather than cluing in Alex, Ed, or Sean? “We’ll have a war on our hands,” Alex had warned Sean before the meeting Sean crashed and used to threaten his father’s associates. Looks like the war has already begun.
As Long As You Comply
• A request: This series already aired in the U.K. and on the AMC+ streaming service and is being picked up by AMC to now air in the United States; AMC will also co-produce the second season. If you’ve already watched the show, please don’t share any spoilers in the comments!
• Some great camerawork and editing this episode, in particular that upside-down perspective in the episode’s opening minutes, the camera whipping around inside the funeral from Ed to the Albanians walking in the door, and the vertical frame of Elliot shoving his hand down the sewer to grab Jim’s wrapped stack of money. Evans directs only one other episode this season (Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens are otherwise stepping in), but he certainly made a strong first impression.
• Anyone else think of Gandalf fighting the Balrog with that shot of Ioan’s burning body falling downward? Just me?
• In terms of hard facts, we don’t know much about Finn yet — or, honestly, about Sean. Sean is looking for revenge, but note that he had never met Luan — how involved was he really in the family business? Is it really appropriate for him to take over when Ed and Alex are right there? And while Marian seems shocked by Finn’s death, I’m not sure how much she’s mourning it; the same goes for Billy and Jackie. Ed is clearly torn up (that eulogy was an exceptional bit of acting from Msamati), but note that the only memory Sean and Billy share of their father is an unhappy one: Sean got him a Creedence Clearwater Revival album on vinyl, and “he wasn’t” pleased. Finn was a powerful man, but was he a good man?
• Alex and Sean are clearly going to have a power struggle at some point, and note how differently they’re treated by the other gangs. Alex is clearly respected, if potentially doing some shady stuff, while Lale calls Sean a “child” and Luan calls him a “boy.” A common theme for Cole as an actor, whose characters often have to prove themselves as more than just a boyish face (see the aforementioned Peaky Blinders and the forgotten A24 film A Prayer Before Dawn).
• This is low-key depressing to even type out, but kudos to Gangs of London for actually casting actors whose ethnic backgrounds sync up with those of their characters! And it is incredibly believable that the diverse nature of the London criminal world would be met with resistance by some people; note how Bradley’s Jim describes the crowd at the Horseshoe as the “United Nations” and tells Elliot to “know your place” and to “heel.” Leave it to Filch and Walder Frey to deliver the series’ most blatant racism so far.
• I need the Gangs of London score immediately. Those deep synths and the little trilling musical cue when Elliot advances upon Besmir? Yes, please, thank you, composers Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal! (They also worked with Evans on The Raid films.)