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Rethinking ‘cool’ gunfights in a mass shooting epidemic

Gangs of London’s stunning 24-minute shootout brings perspective to gun violence

Graphic: James Bareham/Polygon | Source images: AMC/SKY
Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

Darren Edwards, the son of a crime boss hailing from an itinerant community named the Welsh Travellers, unwittingly killed Finn Wallace, the underworld kingpin who united London’s criminal organizations into a steady truce. Now the truce is in shambles, and Darren is the most wanted man in London. That’s all you need to know to enjoy the sixth episode of AMC’s crime drama Gangs of London, a distressingly good hour of action TV that unfolds as a heavily armed kill-squad lays siege to Darren’s country home.

The episode’s 24-minute shootout immediately earns a spot in the action canon for its shocking, audaciously staged violence. The sequence is also difficult to recommend: It’s nearly half an hour of unabated gun violence in a year where American gun violence has returned to the forefront of many people’s minds. In the first four months of 2021, there have been over 147 mass shootings in the United States, a numbing cadence of suffering that’s difficult to comprehend.

In the United States, gun violence is as common as inclement weather, and more or less expected in our fiction. Cinematic shootouts, be it in big-budget movies or cop procedurals, often feel matter-of-fact — that’s just how good guys and bad guys fight. Then there are shootouts like the sort in Gangs of London, which, in its excess, conveys the queasy tension between the thrill of action cinema and the horror of guns in an unforgettable way.

The sixth hour of Gangs of London isn’t typical for the show. After setting the events of the series in motion in a two-part premiere, Darren disappears from the plot, which largely follows the lowly Wallace family footsoldier Elliot Finch (Sope Dirisu) as he rises through the underworld ranks. Most of the nine-episode first season alternates between crime drama and brutal action, usually culminating in a brawl between Elliot and some other enforcer. Guns are present, and there are some particularly violent shootouts, but the set pieces at the center are typically choreographed with hand-to-hand combat.

Arresting fight scenes are a hallmark for show co-creator and director Gareth Evans, who’s most famous for writing and directing The Raid and its sequel. In keeping with The Raid duology, Evans’ Gangs of London fights are sublime, bracing sequences that encourage viewers to cheer and wince in equal measure. Elliot’s fights are gruesome works of art; if there’s a blade or hard edge present in a scene, it will likely find gory purchase in a man’s flesh.

The combat is also breathtaking. Evans is among the most compelling action filmmakers working today, employing camerawork that is just as kinetic as the fighters on-screen without sacrificing clarity. Watching one of Evans’ fight scene means feeling, deep in your bones, the danger of the violence, and how frail even the most capable fighter can be. Applying this ethos to a gunfight is what makes episode 6 so satisfying to me, even as my distaste for guns grows. In this 24-minute confrontation, guns are a nightmare.

Clear and dire stakes

The first 30 minutes of episode 6 concentrates on two things: Darren’s malaise as he hides and waits for a boat to whisk him away to safety, and his father Kinney (Mark Lewis Jones) making a slow, painful journey to Darren’s hideout, looking for his son after surviving an armed assault by the Wallace family. Unfortunately, by the time Kinney gets there, so has a team of Danish assassins led by Leif Hanson (Mads Koudal), hired to kill Darren by yet another party. The second half of the episode kicks into high gear as Kinney arrives at the safe house with the assassins literally right behind him. The quiet farmhouse erupts into chaos.

The most remarkable thing about the gunfight is how it’s a mess. The assassins are using clean military tactics and high-powered weaponry, but instead of the precision often associated with this level of militarism, Evans provides wanton destruction. The camera largely prefers the farmhouse over the assailants, and the peril of the people inside. Splintered wood, shattered glass, and sawdust fill the frame. The targets, attempting to find shelter, are disoriented, panicking as they try to find safety in a space overtaken by sound and fury.

The sheer number of bullets striking objects in the frame is terrifying. The stakes and peril are clear: Every second Darren and his guardians stay alive is a goddamn miracle. And for the most part, they don’t survive. Suddenly and violently, they fall, despite putting up a valiant fight.

Throughout this fight, there’s a story being told. This is how far Kinney was willing to go to save his son’s life. This is the wrath Darren did not seem to understand was being held at bay for his ungrateful hide. When the power structure of the world is upset, violence envelopes everyone.

Every death a tragedy

Gangs of London is a nihilistic story about power, one that largely depicts people wielding it for its own sake. A running thread fueling the show’s violence comes from Finn Wallace’s son, Sean, not knowing the difference between having power and feeling powerful. He acts rashly in favor of the latter, not seeming to recognize how his father’s death has provided him with the former, and how his revenge-fueled actions jeopardize the power he’s built. The other criminal organizations, smelling blood in the water, take advantage of the power vacuum to try and reshuffle the hierarchy and accrue more power by taking it from others.

Gunfights are cinematic because they’re also about power. A gun takes a life, and easily. Introduce one in a scene full of people, and a line is drawn that the audience immediately understands. In a well-told story, a gun crystallizes every character’s relationship with the others: We understand who that weapon is threatening or protecting, and why.

But modern cinematic gunfights are also remarkably clean affairs. Call it the John Wick effect: In this franchise, our hero assassin demonstrates complete mastery of a space, working every angle with hot lead and clean precision. His gun fights aren’t quite balletic, but they are like dance — shots are framed to make sure we understand a space well enough that when John Wick dramatically points a gun, a man is going to drop dead. And into this ballroom, one dance partner after another enters, all to fall at John’s feet.

I like John Wick movies precisely because of this approach. Guns are almost beside the point, like an extension of the assassin’s martial-arts-like moves. The dance is what matters, establishing a baseline of respect for his many opponents. When someone clears that bar long enough to survive a few seconds in his company, we know they are dangerous, and the action elevates in response. The glibness of these gunfights is balanced out by the fiction; where nearly every character is a member of a secret order of assassins with comically elaborate rules to navigate. (Dance can be comedy, too.)

Most gunfights, however, are neither dance nor horror. From run-of-the mill procedurals like NCIS to more elevated fare like Better Call Saul, they’re just there. Like air. They mean almost nothing, a mere inconvenience to the main characters. The series regulars will be fine and everyone knows it, while countless unnamed foes drop dead. This is true of most fiction (it would be very upsetting if most stories did not have their protagonists survive to the end), but when combined with the workmanlike, relatively bloodless presentation that’s a feature of most shootouts, guns take on an almost casual air. And at this point, I would barely notice their required presence in action films and TV shows, were it not for the horror of real-life gun violence always lingering at the edge of my mind. These shootouts are often so thoughtless that they become a good time to look away and scroll down Twitter — and thus, be reminded of the real-world nightmares guns like these inflict.

As domestic shootings come faster than we can process them, and with meaningful reform seemingly off the table, gun violence has been increasingly referred to as an epidemic. It’s an American public health crisis with no end in sight, and no public recourse other than to just get used to it. The apathy toward action doesn’t send me recoiling from cinematic gun fights, but I’m forced to question them more. On a giant screen with booming sound, I am troubled by how casually present guns are. I think about their diminishing returns in entertainment, and my heart sinks in disgust and horror as those same diminishing returns are felt in real life, with each shooting met with less outrage than the last.

Watching the bloody mayhem of Gangs of London crystallized something for me: If people in charge of keeping us safe in the real world don’t take guns seriously, then at the very least, maybe I need to demand that art does. This is not a call for every show or film with a gun to be a ponderous and realistic drama — Gangs of London, for all of its bullet-ridden bodies, can be quite cartoonish — but like anything a filmmaker chooses to put on a screen, they should always serve a purpose.

In Gangs of London, that purpose is a blunt one: it portrays these weapons as ugly, horrible things that reduce us from people to meat.

“We agreed that every death should be a tragedy,” director Gareth Evans said in a recent New York Times interview about his show’s central shootout, noting that even during the episode’s brutal siege, relationships between characters on both sides are made clear, and every loss causes someone anguish.

I appreciate the frank ugliness of this approach, and its place in the story being told. It’s effective in the way that I want to see characters on screen beat the impossible odds, and stay alive a little bit longer. To continue the story. To be with other people. I want everyone to survive the nightmare of a loaded gun.

Gangs of London is available to stream on AMC and AMC Plus