Once per episode, Gangs of London will grab you by the scruff of the neck, hurl you against a wall, and remind you with repeated blunt force that the show comes from Gareth Evans, one of the great action directors alive. (If you haven’t seen them yet, put The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2 in your queue now.) Evans created the series with Matt Flannery, and co-writes and directs several of the early episodes. But whether he’s credited or not, each hour of the crime drama features a fight scene bearing his trademarks: astonishing choreography mixed with long and fluid takes to erase the thought of movie magic, plus a fair amount of gore. If they’re not the absolute peak of what’s possible for TV action, it’s only because we’re coming off a decade that gave us Game of Thrones, Banshee, Daredevil, and several other all-time bouts. But there are some real jaw-droppers here — some involving jaws being broken along the way.
The real question with Gangs of London (new to AMC this weekend, after previous runs in the UK and on the AMC+ streaming service) is just how much loyalty should be engendered by one fabulously orchestrated bit of ultraviolence in each hour. Because outside of those big set pieces, it’s a competent but unremarkable crime drama with a pretty good cast. Maybe that’s enough to scratch a genre itch until the hourly mayhem kicks in, or maybe the talky parts will turn you into Milhouse waiting for Itchy, Scratchy, and Poochie to get to the fireworks factory.
Evans starts things off with fire — literally. A man is dangling upside down from the roof of a half-finished London high-rise, being interrogated by Sean Wallace (Joe Cole), vengeful heir to a local crime empire. When the man’s answers don’t prove satisfactory, Sean douses him and the rope that’s holding him in gasoline, lights them on fire, and gazes on admiringly as the rope burns away, sending his victim’s fiery, agonized body plummeting to his death. This is obviously overkill, though it says more about Sean — who throws all of the top London mobs out of whack in searching for the crew who attacked his father Finn (Colm Meaney) — than about Gangs of London itself. Though several other episodes feature men being lit on fire (and another features a torture victim who has been slow-cooked to death over open flames), the show as a whole is much more restrained most of the time — arguably too restrained.
We quickly rewind to the attack on Finn, then get to know the other major players: Sean’s mother Marian (Michelle Fairley from Game of Thrones, who probably doesn’t even need to be fully awake at this point to play matriarch of a violent clan), Finn’s longtime business partner Ed (Lucian Msamati) and Ed’s clever son Alex (Paapa Essiedu), Sean’s brother Billy (Brian Vernel), a host of other gang leaders in sharp suits, and finally Elliot (Sope Dirisu), who is so desperate to become part of the Family that he repeatedly places his life at great risk to make an impression. There’s a lot of talk about loyalties, old feuds, and the best way forward for the clan, with Ed and Alex prioritizing cash and Sean favoring vendetta at all costs. (“A boy like him would burn cities to prove he’s a man,” suggests a rival.) It’s very talky, and not particularly interesting talk much of the time. Whole scenes feel like utilitarian placeholders where better versions would go if the creative team cared about them nearly as much as they do about the action.
But my goodness, that action! Elliot is at the center of many of the big set pieces, including one in the opening, where he singlehandedly dispatches an entire enemy gang in a pub with no weapon but what he can pick up off the bar. (In one of the series’ few light moments, he later explains to Sean that, yes, he took on eight guys by himself, “but I had a dart, so…”) A later episode involves him facing a much larger, underwear-clad foe who’s brandishing a giant meat cleaver, in a scene that plays as if Evans has challenged himself to find as many different ways as possible to use or block such a thing in a fight.
That level of technical brilliance takes a lot of time, while TV episodes are filmed on a tight schedule. So it’s not a surprise that Gangs of London episodes tend to feature only one slam-bang sequence apiece. (A few installments offer more modest secondary action scenes.) Every now and then, one of Sean’s maneuvers, or the performance of a supporting player like Mark Lewis Jones (as Kinney, unrelenting leader of a gang of Welsh travelers living in a trailer park when the story opens), will add enough life to make the main story seem like more than just throat-clearing until the knives and bullets start flying again. Mostly, though, it’s the sort of show built for multitasking in those long passages in between.
Just remember that you may want to have a cigarette and some whiskey handy for after the fights — for personal use, not to light anybody on fire.
The first episode of Gangs of London premieres April 4th on AMC. I’ve seen the first six of 10 episodes.