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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Gangs Of London’s Scorsese homage runs much deeper than its title

Paapa Essiedu and Joe Cole in Gangs Of London
Paapa Essiedu and Joe Cole in Gangs Of London
Photo: AMC/SKY
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The boom in new streaming services hasn’t necessarily led to higher visibility for newly licensed and debuting series. An old favorite’s journey through platforms can be confusing, while intriguing new shows can get lost in an underwhelming launch. Gangs Of London is in the latter camp. This exciting crime drama from The Raid duo Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery, which follows a struggle for power that threatens to raze the English capital, first premiered on Sky Atlantic nearly a year ago. It struck a chord with U.K. viewers, prompting AMC to snap up the U.S. rights to the show (as well as co-produce the already-ordered second season).

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Led by Peaky Blinders’ Joe Cole and His House’s Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Gangs Of London had its AMC broadcast premiere on April 4. But for the last six months, the series has been idling on the AMC+ streaming service, which did not replace AMC Premiere (not to be confused with AMC A-List) so much as absorb it as part of a bundle that also includes Shudder, Sundance Now, and IFC Films Unlimited. That info was difficult to parse at launch, which likely muffled the show’s Stateside reception. But Gangs Of London’s cable debut is another opportunity to catch up with this kinetic, visceral drama from one of the best action directors working today. Evans works within the established framework of mob dramas, when he’s not trying to punch and kick his way out of it with bone-crunching brawls. Gangs Of London is awash in familiarity, drawing inspiration from Shakespearean tragedies, age-old stories of clan warfare, and more contemporary narratives about infiltrators in over their heads. There are even similarities to the saga of assimilation and a status quo desperate to reassert itself that Noah Hawley attempted with Fargo season four. But Evans and his fellow writers—including Flannery, Claire Wilson, and Lauren Sequeira—draw their most direct parallels from Martin Scorsese’s crime epics, genre-defining works that have shaped a generation of filmmakers.

Now, Evans hasn’t actually cited Scorsese’s work while promoting the series, but the influence is there, unconscious though it may be, in everything from the title to the undercover cop in danger of falling in thrall to his targets. There are elements of The Departed (including a Lear-like crime boss and a pulse-pounding chase—or eight), but more than anything, Gangs Of London recalls Scorsese’s Gangs Of New York. Different factions fight and scrap and kill for control of London’s underworld, which is really only a step removed from its purportedly more legitimate face. Tribalism and aspirational immigrant narratives (the American dream, writ international) are explored along with power dynamics. A bloodthirsty maniac wields a cleaver, and the final shot lingers over a skyline. But where Scorsese’s period drama about the Five Points saw “a furnace where a city might someday be forged,” Gangs Of London ponders, in between some inspired beatdowns, the sins of an empire’s epicenter.

Photo of Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù in AMC and Sky Atlantic's Gangs Of London
Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù
Photo: AMC/SKY

Cole stars as Sean Wallace, the scion of an Irish crime family that has gone from street-level operations to offices in skyscrapers emblazoned with their name. The Wallace organization has been refashioned as a real estate empire, which now lends an air of legitimacy—via money laundering—to the groups that arose in their place; among them, a Pakistani heroin outfit run by Asif (Asif Raza Mir), a Kurdish group funneling drug profits to freedom fighters back home (captained by a captivating Narges Rashidi as Lale), and the Albanian mafia led by Luan Dushaj (Orli Shuka). The murder of Sean’s father Finn (Colm Meaney) creates a power vacuum, one that Sean desperately tries to fill even as he threatens to burn down everything they’ve built to find his father’s killer.

Into this game of thrones comes Dìrísù’s Elliot Finch, an undercover detective trying to work his way up the ranks of the Wallace organization. As the series begins, Elliot’s stuck doling out bribes on behalf of a low-level player named Jim (David Bradley). But he soon sees an opportunity to ingratiate himself to Sean and get greater access to the higher rungs of the organization, where father-son team Ed Dumani (Lucian Msamati) and Alexander Dumani (Paapa Essiedu) manage most of the wheelings and dealings. As we see time and again, there are only so many paths into the Wallace organization: Money grants entry to people like Luan, Asif, and other unnamed investors, while men like Elliot must buy their way in with loyalty and a not inconsiderable amount of spilled blood.

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After a series of spectacular physical feats—shout out to Dìrísù and his stunt double Mens-Sana Tamakloe for their wince-inducing work—Sean does welcome Elliot into the fold. Their alliance borders on friendship, but Elliot knows too much about Sean to trust him and Sean knows too little. Still, they’re bound by their efforts to find Finn’s killer. Sean even comes to rely on Elliot, especially as his relationship with longtime friend Alex starts to splinter from jealousy, and his brother Billy (Brian Vernel) grows more disillusioned with the family.

Image of Michelle Fairley in AMC and Sky Atlantic's Gangs Of London
Michelle Fairley
Photo: AMC/SKY
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Cole and Dìrísù both give magnetic lead performances, taking turns as hunter and quarry, and making a two-hander of Evans and Flannery’s sprawling series. But Gangs Of London is populated with compelling characters and stories, including the interconnected history of the Wallace and Dumani families. As Ed eulogizes his former partner, he notes that he and Finn found a “city of closed doors” when they came to London. Not only did they broach every one of those doors despite the bigotry and racism they faced, they established a dynasty, one that includes Ed’s son Alexander, a brilliant businessman who’s always been acutely aware of the underhanded methods used to get to the top. “Everything’s a front,” Alex tells his MBA friend over drinks, methodically exposing the ill-gotten gains that fund the most august of corporations in Europe. For every kick-ass fight, there’s a reflection on the nature of respectability, which can be bought as readily as any commodity, and the elusiveness of upward mobility.

For as much as it concerns itself with fathers and sons, and fatherless men trying to fill a void, Gangs Of London offers an equally fascinating array of female players. As Marian Wallace, Michelle Fairley (Catelyn Stark herself) builds from a simmer to a boil. She’s just as protective as Ed and Finn, and she finds vicious new ways to look after her family and legacy. Shannon Dumani (Pippa Bennett-Warner) is well-versed in her father’s business, but, like Marian’s daughter Jacqueline (Valene Kane), chooses to forge her own path. Lale is even more of a lone wolf; all her efforts are “for a place I can never go back to,” she notes somberly but unapologetically. Each of these women is clear-eyed and driven, and not afraid to clash with the men around them.

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Evans and Flannery balance these disparate elements while keeping the series moving at an almost breathless clip. Although baroque, the plotting never overwhelms. They even find a way to inject humor and a mangled sense of hope—hope that you can break free from a life or family not of your own choosing. But, like its spiritual forebear, the series is primarily committed to capturing the violent history of how cities and dynasties are built. Gangs Of London doesn’t just put bodies into the ground; it exhumes the ones in the foundations of these supposed beacons of civilization.