Joe Cole in a bleak British-based TV series centred around rivals gangs gunning for each others’ turf. You’ve seen this before, right? But make no mistake, Gangs of London is no mere modern day Peaky Blinders.
What Gangs of London lacks in laddish charm compared to the hit BBC drama it makes up for with weighty gangland politics and breathless fight scenes as good as you’ll see anywhere on TV.
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Cole leads the show as Sean Wallace, son of a notorious crime lord who is killed during a bungled assassination plot. The former Peaky Blinders star left the Brummie gang series after claiming it was “Cillian Murphy’s show” and his role during the first episode of GoL feels much like an evolution of his own Shelby character.
Sean is poised, a slicker John Boy, and from his first appearance in the heavy opening scene, he emanates a cold ruthlessness, though he still has a point to prove to other gang leaders who smell blood amid the power vacuum his father Finn’s death has left behind.
A Godfather-esque table gathering introduces each of the major crime bosses on a surface-level, but of course there’s a tangled labyrinth of allegiances and tensions beneath the relative civilities with just a handful explored in the opening episode.
Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones) keeps her cards close to her chest as Sean’s mother Marian, though we can expect more than a brooding widow role for her as the show develops, while Lucian Msamati (His Dark Materials) puts on an impassioned display as mobster Ed Dumani.
Bu it is Sope Dirisu (Humans) who steals the show as low-life chancer Elliot Finch in the opening episode. Dirisu shows an impressive range, showcasing multiple aspects of his character already, and his sinew-straining fight scenes are superbly executed – a highlight of the show.
Creator Gareth Evans leans into his experience from the lung-bursting The Raid films to perfectly choreograph a pair of outrageous fight scenes, Dirisu front and centre of both.
The first wouldn’t look out of place in Snatch, and also bears resemblance to Colin Firth’s absurd, riotous church fight scene in Kingsman (you’ll never look at darts the same way again) while the second is an primal, bloody showdown against a meat cleaver-wielding opponent.
Gangs of London is brutal and uber-violent, and for those reasons it won’t have the same mass appeal as Peaky Blinders – Sean’s first act in the opening scene is more grim than anything enacted by a Shelby brother – yet it does accomplish a balance between generating intrigue around the table and smashing people through them. The action is wild but there are already signs of a gripping drama emerging that lift the show from a simple “disengage brain, crash, kapow, thwack!” romp.
The first episode offers a full package of action and drama set to the backdrop of the most ‘Gothamised’ London audiences will have seen, an emphasis on faceless high-rises as opposed to killer set-pieces at the capital’s tourist hotspots – those expecting fisty cuffs atop the London Eye or car chases around Buckingham Palace will go wanting.
Juxtaposing the state-of-the-art skyscrapers coated in all shades of grey and the tight, seedy, broken streets below is effective. This is Evans’ London, and it’s not how you’ve seen it before. It feels gritty and real, it feels nasty and dark.
The opening episode – which stands at 90 minutes long – feels like the start of something big: Gangs of London packs a punch, and several early revelations will be enough to drag you back in for more.
The series will rise or fall on its ability to continually strike the balance between all-out violence and tense character drama, leaning too far either way would tarnish its appeal, but if Evans stacks up quality violence and drama in proportion, Gangs of London could be one of the gems of lockdown.
Gangs of London begins on Thursday, 23rd April at 9pm on Sky Atlantic – check out what else is on with our TV Guide