‘Gangs of London’ ignites brutal criminal turf war



Brutal, gruesome violence on cable television is nothing new. Stabbings, amputated extremities, mutilations, beatings, slit throats, mauling by wild animals, crushed skulls and eye-gouging have become staples with many series.

We may think television programs like “Game of Thrones” and “American Horror Story,” to name two of a zillion, are unique on the scale of bloodshed, but then along comes the British entry of “Gangs of London” on the AMC+ ad-free premium service.

From the very first frame, “Gangs of London” wastes no time establishing its ruthless criminal underworld milieu. Dangling from a high-rise building, a victim witnesses his assailant pouring gas on the rope that holds him high above the ground.

Ignoring the pleas of his quarry, the man sets the rope on fire as it gradually burns through, dropping his prey screaming in pain from the flames to his inevitable death on the concrete pavement.

In a flashback to a week earlier, two jittery young men await a text message that sends them off to a seedy apartment building in Little Albania. Apparently, a drug deal is about to go down as one enters the building while the other waits in the getaway car.

Arriving moments later in a luxury sedan is Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), the leading crime boss of London. For reasons not readily apparent, he enters the same building while his driver Jack (Emmett Scanlan) waits outside.

The young man waiting in the building, Darren (Aled ap Steffan), is on a mission, but exactly what we’re not sure. Then in a flash, Finn Wallace, standing outside an empty apartment, is gunned down in a hail of bullets.

As the head of an organization that united the city’s most prominent gangs, Finn’s demise leaves a huge power vacuum. First of all, nobody knows who ordered the hit that ostensibly employed two punks to do the dirty work.

With rivals everywhere and billions of British pounds at stake, it’s up to the impulsive, hot-tempered Sean Wallace (Joe Cole), with the help of the Dumani family, to take his father’s place.

The patriarch of the Dumani family is Ed Dumani (Lucian Msamati), and he has been Finn’s right-hand man and consigliere ever since they seized control of London’s underworld two decades ago.

A skilled tactician, Ed Dumani is an influential figure within the Wallace organization who explicitly runs the criminal side of the business. With the approval of his mother Marian (Michelle Fairley), Sean is ready to take the reins of the family enterprise.

Following his father’s funeral, Sean makes it known to the leaders of the city’s other gangs that his primary objective is to first find out who ordered the hit on Finn, followed by cementing his place at the top of the Wallace empire.

Since all of London’s organized criminal activity appears to get the green light from the Wallace clan, there may be any number of suspects that wanted to bump off Finn, which is another reason Sean is fixated on exacting revenge.

Flexing his underworld muscles, Sean orders all criminal business in the city to be held in abeyance until his father’s killer is identified. To no one’s pleasure, Sean manages to close all the ports to incoming contraband.

Haunted by the ghost of his father, Sean must prove to his enemies as well as his mother that he should be in charge, even if he must destroy the business. One crime lord observes that “a boy like him would burn cities just to convince the world he’s a man.”

Meanwhile, Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu) is a bottom-rung criminal hoping to work his way up the Wallace organization for reasons that could easily imperil his own life, but he proves his worth by taking on some Albanian thugs with the help of Alex Dumani (Paapa Essiedu).

The brawl with the Albanians at the pub across the street from where the Finn Wallace funeral takes place is such an epically vicious fight that Elliot bounces one thug’s head so hard on the bar counter as to impale his face with a beer mug.

The storyline of revenge and criminal activity may seem straightforward but there is much to follow in terms of characters from the Wallace and Dumani families, to say nothing of the criminals from different nationalities operating on British soil.

Aficionados of the gangster genre may be intrigued by the callous and violently bloody carnage of “Gangs of London,” which despite being a cable program feels like a distant cousin of feature-length films such as “Goodfellas” and “Scarface.”

Anyone hoping that the setting of London might feature all the picturesque areas of the city that look so inviting will be disappointed. The scenery shifts too often from gritty slum areas to drab high-rise buildings under construction.

While “Gangs of London” does not stint on violence, the intense drama benefits from effective character development that keeps you wondering about the various threads of dangerous actions that can easily go astray.

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.