Hey, do you want to do a logic problem?
Imagine you’re a London gang member who has gone into the basement of another gang’s hideout to retrieve a kidnapped person whose continued existence on Earth is critically important to your employers. You reach a small room at the end of a long, dark hallway. Waiting inside is a member of the other gang. He has a bullet head, a leering grin, the shoulders of an ox, linebacker thighs, and no discernible neck. He is covered in grime and blood and wearing nothing but boxer briefs. Your furtive glances around the room confirm that this is a charnel house where the man tortures and kills people with (it appears) any weapon or household implement that strikes his fancy. The man is holding a meat cleaver. You’re unarmed. He’s blocking the only exit. The only way out is through him. What do you do?
Such headscratchers-of-the-damned are the specialty of writer-director-producer-fight choreographer Gareth Evans, mastermind of the Raid films. They’re also the barbaric soul of Gangs of London, a crime drama–action thriller created by Evans and Matt Flannery for Britain’s Sky Atlantic, debuting this Sunday on AMC (following an early rollout on the network’s AMC+ streaming platform late last year). Evans’s work is invigorating because he moves through each fight scene both physically and pictorially, asking “What happens next?” as the actors and crew are working their way through a confrontation that has been more suggested than fleshed out, and designing the shots for maximum dynamism. He loves to reflect combatants’ emotional states by tilting the camera, placing it on the floor or ceiling, hanging it upside down, or moving away from a significant action as it begins and then returning to show us the punch line (as when a man being pursued by another man pushes a picnic table out of frame, and the camera moves away to show his pursuer, then returns to reveal the first man using the table as a platform to vault a stone wall).
Oh, yeah, sorry: the plot. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, down to the cliché in medias res opening of a terrified man being executed by a gang boss, followed by a “One Week Earlier” title card. Colm Meaney stars as Finn Wallace, a legendary London gangster who is ignominiously shot dead while visiting a public housing project. The killer and his friend and driver are Travellers, vagabonds who live in trailer parks and are seemingly the only group in the underworld to whom every other group feels superior. Finn’s eldest son and heir apparent, Sean Wallace (Joe Cole), is a raged-up problem child, carrying on like a combination of Sonny and Fredo Corleone in the Godfather films and making hotheaded, mostly awful choices. His initial belief that another crime family ordered his father’s death leads to the splintering of the United Nations–style interethnic coalition built decades ago by the old man and his best friend and chief adviser, Ed Dumani (Game of Thrones’ Lucian Msamati), a Caribbean immigrant.
In short order, Sean has made enemies of every significant faction that the Wallace clan did regular business with, including the Albanian Mafia (keepers of the territory where Finn was murdered); a Pakistani heroin ring that uses the Wallaces for money laundering and importation; and another heroin ring, this one Kurdish, that bankrolls freedom fighters with their profits. (Narges Rashidi excels as Lale, a militant Kurd seeking revenge against the Pakistanis for murdering someone she loved.) Our guide through the madness is Elliot Finch (Sope Dìrísù), a striving low-level Wallace foot soldier. Elliot rises through the ranks because he keeps resolving seemingly impossible situations with his brain and brawn, and soon finds himself edging close to Sean’s inner circle (which includes his steely mama, played by another Game of Thrones alum, Michelle Fairley). Finch is a terrific audience surrogate, radiating the disgruntled lumpenprole badassery of Charles Bronson. You believe that, after Elliot dispatches eight men in a bar fight armed with nothing more than a dart, he’s not proud of himself, but annoyed that he had to do all that work for people who don’t appreciate him.
It’s important to note that, despite the otherworldly excellence of the brawls and foot chases, this is not a “pure action” series. There’s really no such thing on TV or in cinema. You’re always going to need a certain amount of plot and characterization to set up the knife fights, fisticuffs, shoot-outs, etc. The likes of 24, Strike Back, and the current Warrior (and films by Evans, and Atomic Blonde, and the John Wick series) chased that atavistic fugue state, anyway, and often got close to embodying it. But Gangs of London isn’t striving for that. It’s more like a hardcore, slightly off-brand ’90s potboiler like King of New York or State of Grace, but with action sequences showcasing the strain of acrobatic mayhem that made 1980s and ’90s Hong Kong cinema (which was driven by graduates of the Peking Opera School) internationally popular. Spectacular, cartoonish ultraviolence becomes less of a selling point as the series goes on. Its replacement — a parable of toxic masculinity about men making the most savage possible choice to avoid appearing “soft’ in front of other men — becomes tedious.
But it’s worth waiting out Gangs’ less distinguished bits to get to those Evans setpieces, all of which he co-choreographed with stunt coordinator Jude Poyer, even when the episode as a whole is credited to another director. There’s a long, complex sequence a few episodes in that’s like a compacted version of the eponymous situation in the first Raid film, and even relatively low-stakes scenes, such as a foot chase in the opening episode that climaxes in Elliot climbing a sheer brick wall into a courtyard by holding onto exposed pipes, delivers the oh my God, I can’t watch this frisson that defines action at its most sublime. Most of us make to-do lists. Evans and his collaborators make to-die lists. At the end of the story, each line is struck through, and there are bloody thumbprints on the page.