The brutal action-packed crime series Gangs of London (now streaming on Stan) is another reminder that we are currently living in a golden age of martial arts television, writes critic Travis Johnson.
After Irish mob boss Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney) is murdered, the London criminal demimonde is thrown into chaos. While Finn’s brash son Sean (Joe Cole) tries to take over the reins of his father’s operation, the hunt is on to find out who ordered the hit on Wallace patriarch, which strikes lowly criminal foot soldier Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu) as a hell of an opportunity for advancement. However, the other criminal elements of London will only put up with this disruption to business as usual for so long before they seek to put things back on an even keel, even if that means going to war.
As I’ve written before, we are living in a golden age of martial arts television, and Gangs of London is further proof. At first taste it feels like another post-Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels British crime caper (and let’s face it, most of those have been dreadful) but it quickly—very quickly—reveals itself to have more visceral, not to mention bone-crunching, concerns. It kicks off with a truly horrifying scene of interrogation and execution atop a London skyscraper, then goes about the business of offering up at least one stunningly choreographed beat-down per episode, the kind of martial arts mayhem normally reserved for feature films shot in countries with more laissez-faire approaches to OH&S.
A glance at the credits reveals why: Gangs of London was co-created by Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans, who gave us the epochal Indonesian actioner The Raid back in 2011. That film was pretty much ground zero for the current iteration of martial arts cinema, Evans bringing the sensibilities that served him so well in Jakarta to the streets of London. He seems to have picked up some cues from Indonesian director Timo Tjahjanto (May the Devil Take You, The Night Comes for Us) along the way.
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Gangs of London’s action sequences aren’t just brutal—they’re bloody as all hell, combining horror gags with martial arts choreography in a way reminiscent of Tjahjanto’s work on the sublimely gory The Night Comes for Us. Antagonists aren’t just beaten; they’re disassembled. Knives come into play. A fire axe in one particularly shocking scene. Heck, in our man Elliott’s first showcase scrap, he pulls a couple of darts out of a pub dartboard to augment his prodigious combat skills.
Which is to say that Gangs of London isn’t for the faint of heart—even jaded action and horror fans are sure to wince at some point or another. But the series isn’t just an endless parade of violence and depravity (although it comes close at times). It’s depiction of the London criminal world as a strata of competing ethnic factions, including Kurdish heroin smuggles, Welsh Travellers, Black British power-brokers, Albanian mobsters and more, is engrossingly complex and has the ring of veracity even when the show has no qualms about leaning into the melodramatic for emotional effect.
The interplay between the criminal, the cultural, the political, and the personal is explored in interesting ways. Elder black gang boss Ed Dumani (Lucian Msamati) for instance reminisces about how he joined forces with the late Finn back in the day in response to England’s “No blacks, no Irish” racism, while Pakistani heroin trafficker Asif (Asif Raza Mir) aims to see his son elected Lord Mayor of London, while Kurdish Lale (Narges Rashidi) imports heroin to fund insurrection back home.
It’s all very labyrinthine, occasionally bordering on the Byzantine, moving so quickly that it’s easy to gloss over the details. However Evans and his co-creator Matt Flannery make sure to anchor the big twists to their characters’ motivations. Meaning even when you’re not quite across the machinations of the Albanian mob, you at least understand why our man Finch goes to rescue the kidnapped niece of a rival, or why the vengeful Sean has a Traveller encampment machine-gunned into matchwood. Gangs of London is a blisteringly brutal British crime saga that doesn’t quite raise the bar for storytelling innovation, but certainly moves the needle when it comes to mayhem and melodrama.