Most gangster epics follow two basic models. In the first, the protagonist kills his way to the top, consolidates his power and then has to defend his supremacy from rivals.
It usually ends with the anti-hero either a) dying in a hail of bullets, or b) surviving, but realising, too late for redemption, that all the money and power in the world isn’t worth a lifetime of betrayal and murder.
The Godfather Part II (let’s ignore the third film, a redundant, purely money-making exercise) is the definitive example. Michael Corleone has wiped out every last one of his enemies, and even killed his own brother, but in the process has lost everything that made him human.
The second model is the classic revenge story, where the protagonist seeks out the one(s) who murdered someone close to him – usually a sibling, a father, a father figure or a mentor.
There are always going to be differences in style: the classy stateliness of Coppola’s films, for instance, versus the gaudy, manic energy of Brian De Palma’s Scarface. But the basic story tends to run along the same tramlines.
For roughly half of its feature-length opening episode, Gangs of London, Sky Atlantic’s flashy new series starting tonight, looks like it’s going to pay homage to those two venerable gangster movie strands.
*Mild spoilers for the opening episode ahead*
It begins with a genre staple: a guy dangling by his feet from the roof-edge of a tall building.
Most dramas would be content to drop him to his death. Gangs of London, however, has him being doused in petrol and set alight first, then left screaming and writhing in agony until the flames burn through the rope suspending him.
The man who strikes the match is Sean Wallace (Joe Cole, late of Peaky Blinders), the eldest son of Irish-born gang boss Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney) and the heir to his father’s vast criminal empire.
After Finn is assassinated in mysterious circumstances, seething Sean wants to know who killed his father, and he wants to know it yesterday.
Older, more experienced heads in the organisation counsel caution and patience. They don’t want to risk wrecking the long-standing peace between the Wallace family and the city’s other nationality-based criminal factions, including the Albanians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis and the Travellers.
Gangs of London is full of comfortingly familiar gangland tropes, including a lengthy funeral sequence – a nod, possibly, to The Godfather’s even lengthier wedding sequence – that establishes some of the key characters.
These include Finn’s cool-headed consigliere Ed Dumani (British-Tanzanian actor Lucian Msamati, from His Dark Materials), who talks about how his and Finn’s friendship was forged in the face of the “No Blacks, No Irish” racism of London in the ‘70s.
“A city of closed doors brought us together,” he says in his eulogy.
Gangs of London is co-created, co-written and directed in part by Gareth Evans, who made the spectacularly choreographed, ultra-violent film The Raid and its sequel. This may explain why, halfway through, it suddenly turns into something completely different – and completely bonkers.
We’re introduced to Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu), a down-on-his luck ex-soldier who seems eager to ingratiate himself with Sean. Despite being described as “a washed-up squaddie”, Elliot turns out to be a veritable superhero. He takes out eight Albanian hardmen in a bar fight, using nothing more than a single dart. Limbs snap, bones crunch, bodies fly through the air.
Later, in an even more lunatic scene, Elliot goes toe-to-toe with a gigantic thug in a fight involving a meat cleaver, a mattress and gallons of blood. It’s all so absurd, it’s absolutely hilarious.
The problem is, it jars with everything we’ve seen up to then and undermines any credibility.
You don’t expect a gangland saga to be violence-free. But you don’t expect it to be Itchy & Scratchy either.
All episodes available to Sky an NOW TV customers.