Sit through the opening 40 minutes of Gangs of London, and a feeling of déjà vu will start to creep in. The Sky Atlantic series, which premiered in the United States on the new streaming service AMC+ in October, looks like it was created by a recommendation algorithm for anyone who’s finished watching Peaky Blinders or McMafia, and can quote The Godfather off the cuff. (Even the title, “Gangs of London,” sounds like it was designed with good SEO practices in mind!) The show concerns itself with—stop me if you’ve heard this one before—the assassination of a mafia leader, which leaves his empire in the hands of a hot-headed son itching to prove his worth and vultures looking to pick off the scraps for a chance at more power.
But as Gangs of London sets up a well-established trope of the British gangster drama—the pub brawl—to wrap up the first episode, things get electric. A low-level enforcer for the Wallaces (the show’s equivalent of the Corleone family) blazes through nameless goons in increasingly ridiculous ways. He picks up a fucking dart and uses it as a weapon. The sequence is wacky and savage, yes, but also impressively streamlined and well-choreographed. It’s melee as a brutal art form:
This is what sets Gangs of London apart from its crime drama contemporaries. The fight scenes absolutely rip, and you’re guaranteed at least one glorious action sequence per episode. While the pub fight has received plenty of well-deserved fanfare, the second half of Gangs of London’s two-part premiere arguably has an even better set piece, courtesy of this same character having to deal with a mountain of a man covered in another person’s blood wielding a meat cleaver. (Meat Cleaver Man is also wearing only underwear and boots, which makes him, frankly, even more terrifying.)
That meat cleaver sequence, with all its intensity and viscera, is perhaps the biggest tip about who the mastermind behind the madness is: Gareth Evans. Evans might only be a household name for action-movie savants, but in his short career, he’s already established himself as one of the best in the business. Here’s but a taste of Evans’s work on The Raid: Redemption, pound for pound the greatest action movie of this century:
Evans cut his teeth as a director making a trio of Indonesian martial arts films: Merantau, The Raid, and The Raid 2, which have all developed cult-like followings simply because they’re awesome. But when the Welsh filmmaker returned to the United Kingdom, instead of helming another action movie with bigger resources and a major studio’s backing, he went to Netflix to dabble in horror. The movie he made on the streamer, Apostle, is more of a literal cult film: It’s like if The Wicker Man was drenched in as much blood as the elevator in The Shining. But Apostle does a great job leaving some of its gnarlier moments off-screen to linger in the audience’s imagination, as many good horror movies do. For example: We don’t have to actually see a guy getting a drill slowly inserted into his skull to be completely appalled.
While his former collaborator Timo Tjahjanto has doubled down on preposterous(ly gory) martial arts cinema for Netflix—if you’re an action-movie completist, stop what you’re doing and watch The Night Comes for Us right now—Apostle proved that Evans isn’t just an “action movie guy.” Apostle is a fun, nasty little horror movie, but as entertaining as it was, Evans’s pivot away from action was a bit like a two-sport athlete choosing the game that’d make him a decent player rather than a potential Hall of Famer. Executing kick-ass action sequences isn’t the only thing Evans can do as a filmmaker, but dear lord, when he does it, he’s nearly peerless.
Which brings us to Gangs of London. It’s another first for Evans, who’d never previously worked on a TV show. (He cocreated the series with Matt Flannery, who served as cinematographer for all of Evans’s movies.) But the filmmaker has imprinted the series and its well-worn setup with his martial arts sensibilities. In addition to directing the two-part premiere and the show’s fifth episode, a standalone that features as much artillery as a Michael Bay production, Evans handled all of Gangs of London’s action scenes himself. Gangs of London could’ve existed without so much explicit violence, but then the show wouldn’t have such a unique selling point. Frankly, action-wise, the only thing that comes close on television is Cinemax’s Warrior, which, unfortunately, is fighting an uphill battle to avoid cancellation. (Gangs of London was originally going to premiere on Cinemax, but when the network announced it would no longer work on original content, the show moved to AMC.)
And to Gangs of London’s credit, the stylistic and masterfully choreographed chaos that Evans oversees is certainly a flex, but it’s always integral to the story. The show opens with the messy fallout from the murder of Irish mobster Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney), who oversaw a complex web of London-based crime syndicates—the Albanians, Pakistanis, Kurds, etc.—into a billion-dollar enterprise with the help of the Dumani family. (To keep the Godfather thread going, the Dumani patriarch is basically the Wallace’s consigliere, and has the same even-keeled temperament as Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen.) Instead of prioritizing the family business, Finn’s son Sean (Peaky Blinders alum Joe Cole) wants to find out which one of his father’s associates could be responsible for the killing. Hot-headed, mopey, and insecure about living up to his father’s image, all that separates Sean from Kendall Roy is his violent streak—meaning he dangles a poor soul from the top of a skyscraper before setting him on fire.
Succession is another interesting analogue for Evans’s series in that both shows do an excellent job of demonstrating how obscene wealth, capitalism, and misery are intertwined. The Wallaces and their associates are rich beyond belief—the family’s business front is a real estate empire—and yet you can’t point to a single character who’s remotely happy with their lives. Even Sean’s pregnant sister Jacqueline (Valene Kane), who works as a nurse and is estranged from her family, lives in constant fear that she’ll become a casualty of their intra-gang conflicts.
But while Succession is a great show despite having so few likable characters—I’m still Team Kendall baby!—there’s at least one person worth rooting for in Gangs of London’s sprawling ensemble. That would be Elliot (Sope Dirisu), who’s already been immortalized in GIF form taking out henchmen in a pub like they’re rag dolls. Elliot (mild spoiler alert) is actually an undercover cop hoping to break into the Wallace’s inner circle and gain their trust. Unfortunately, he’s the physical embodiment of the “ah shit, here we go again” meme—almost every step of his journey is highlighted by a punishing (but nevertheless entertaining) fight scene. (If you’re wondering why Elliot is such a good fighter, his dad was a boxer; also, Gangs of London is way more fun this way.)
As the Bruce Lee–inspired Warrior (probably) faces an unceremonious and undeserved end after two kick-ass seasons, Gangs of London, which has already been renewed for a second season, will be an oasis for action-starved TV viewers. (AMC will hop on board as a coproducer with Sky Atlantic for Season 2.) Evans, meanwhile, is working on a feature film between seasons that’s very much in his wheelhouse: an action thriller set around Christmas. (Cue the Die Hard comparisons.) But whether it’s delivered via television or film, Evans’s kinetic, relentless, and martial arts–influenced brand of action puts everything else to shame. If he isn’t a household name yet, it’s only a matter of time before one of his characters comes crashing through your living room wall.