Gareth Evans on His Action-Packed AMC Series ‘Gangs of London’ and Passing on ‘The Raid 3’
The martial-arts maestro on his thrilling new AMC series set in the London criminal underworld, why he hasn’t done a superhero film yet, and the future of “The Raid” franchise.
Gangs of London’s premiere episode boasts a barroom brawl of jaw-dropping brutality, as low-level hood Elliot Finch (His House’s Sope Dirisu) dispatches a group of Albanian henchman by snapping their limbs, flipping them onto their necks, and stabbing and slashing them with a throwing dart. It’s a ferocious showstopper that ably sets the tone for this gritty and often gruesome U.K. gangster series, which—following its April 2020 UK debut—premieres April 4 on AMC. Moreover, it underscores that the proceedings (very loosely inspired by a 2006 video game) are the handiwork of Gareth Evans, the Welsh-born director whose 2011 action film The Raid: Redemption and its even more rugged 2014 sequel The Raid 2 brought the Indonesian martial art of Pencak Silat to the global masses and established a new standard in expertly choreographed carnage.
Evans is a master of violent mayhem, and Gangs of London delivers that in spades, be it via extended hand-to-hand combat sequences that also sometimes feature a blade or butcher knife, or massive shootouts between underworld factions in which explosive close-quarters shotgun blasts are the norm. Nonetheless, Evans’ series—which he co-created with Matt Flannery, and directed alongside horror vets Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens—is also a modern-day Peaky Blinders-esque saga about diverse criminals vying for control of England’s capital in the wake of the mysterious death of kingpin Finn Wallace (Colm Meaney). Focused on Wallace empire heir Sean (Joe Cole), his new recruit Elliot (who boasts his own secret identity), his mother Marian (Game of Thrones’ Michelle Fairley), his business partner Ed Dumani (Lucian Msamati), and Ed’s son Alex (I May Destroy You’s Paapa Essiedu)—not to mention rival Albanians, Pakistanis, Kurdish militants, Welsh travelers, Nigerian mobsters, and Danish assassins—it’s a sprawling multicultural tale about greed, honor, and ruthless ambition.
For Evans, Gangs of London marks a transition to television after a past decade making movies, and proves a showcase for both his highly particular brand of R-rated action and his fondness for intricate crime dramas rife with tangled allegiances, schemes, and betrayals. Though he only helms the two-part opener as well as the fifth episode, his fingerprints are all over the series, from its blistering fights and gnarly gore to its portrait of a world in which trust and loyalty are hard to come by, and chaos and butchery are always right around the corner. Ahead of the show’s stateside bow, we chatted with the amiable filmmaker about the limits and freedoms of working in TV, differentiating the series from other likeminded underworld affairs, and whether there’s hope for an eventual The Raid 3.
You’re the grand maestro of limb-snapping, head-cracking combat cinema. What is it about ultra-violence that so appeals to you?
[Laughs] It’s a weird one, because I’m ridiculously squeamish when it comes to anything that’s real. I’m not good at watching UFC fights, because I’m always putting myself in the mindset of the person who’s on the floor trying to defend themselves from getting hit, and I get very squeamish, very quickly, when anything’s real. So I can’t watch fail videos, I can’t do any of that stuff. But when I know it’s fake, and choreographed and designed, then there’s something about the rhythms of it that I find fascinating.
My dad will hate me for telling this story, but he introduced me to The Wild Bunch when I was probably just okay to watch it. The Wild Bunch is his favorite film of all time. When it finally aired on TV, he showed me it, and I remember thinking it was incredible; I’d never seen anything like it in my life. Then, I had a natural interest in watching the Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies—I was more of a martial-arts nut than I was a superhero nut. For me, the martial arts guys like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, they were the superheroes, but they were real-life superheroes. That was the thing that I found extraordinary.
I think it wasn’t really until I got into John Woo’s work, and listening to the percussive style of the action. There are moments in the warehouse shootout in Hard Boiled where, even down to the pang of a bullet hitting a car door, it’s almost a time signature. I love that weird, musical quality to action, where there’s a rhythm—it’s almost like a dance between the editing, the camera, the performers, and then whatever they’re doing that is really unique. If there’s one thing that I know and understand, it’s that. I didn’t think it would be, but I guess over my time making films out in Indonesia, it just presented itself to me and I feel very grateful to continue to do that.
There’s a lot of intense violence in Gangs of London. Were there restrictions on how far you could take things?
With my work on the show, I did episodes one and two (which was the feature-length premiere in the U.K.), and I did the campsite in episode two, the Elliot and Cole axe fight in episode three, the Lale (Narges Rashidi) introduction when she gets off the van and AK-47s a bunch of people and finds her husband, and also the Welsh farmhouse siege. Across all those sequences, I was never given a note that we went too far or anything. To be quite honest with you, I never even thought about it. It was a weird thing. We just designed what we designed, and after we designed everything, as we were about to start shooting episode one, I started thinking, “Oh, I wonder if anyone’s got a problem with the content of this?” [Laughs]
Not that I felt that we had gone out of our way to offend, or to make it transgressive. It was just that natural thing where I was like, “Wait, nobody said anything.” So it never even became part of a conversation. It was always, “No, you guys are fine, no problems. Everyone’s watching the previz and they all love it, so carry on.” I was like, oh, okay, that’s fine. The final fight with the guy and the meat cleaver, between Lee Charles and Sope—when they did that sequence, the previz, yes, it looks intense, and it’s designed to be more like a slasher film in a way. The villain stalking the hero. But when you take that out of the previz room, which is a brightly lit room with crash mats and cardboard boxes, and you put it into an incredibly oppressive location with graffiti everywhere and blood on the walls, suddenly you’re in a horror movie and it plays a lot more disturbing than it did when we designed the thing.
Did you employ any tricks to help sell the series’ more ultra-violent moments?
Talking about the dynamics of it, the way Lee gets killed by landing on the knife, it feels super-violent, and it is super-violent. But the moment of impact, you see that for about three frames, and then it cuts over the shoulder, and you see blood hit Sope’s face. I will put everything I can into your own head to carry on the cut, so you’re thinking, “Oh my god, I saw him land, and the neck opened up and blood went everywhere!” But if you actually look frame by frame by frame, no, you didn’t see it [Laughs]. It’s about giving enough, and then knowing when to pull back.
Why enlist two horror vets—Corin Hardy (The Hallow, The Nun) and Xavier Gens (Frontier(s))—to helm the other episodes?
I knew I wanted genre filmmakers across it who understood what I meant when I was talking about all these genre films. Because we all watch the same movies. I might have my primary focus in terms of action cinema, but I love watching all genres of films, and so do Corin and Xavier. Since lockdown kicked in, me and Xav have been doing a little film club thing where we keep introducing each other to obscure films, or films that we should have seen but hadn’t yet. We consume a lot.
What I love about the connectivity between horror and action is—one of the things I always love doing is that moment before it explodes. I like playing with the tension beats before it explodes. It’s the same thing as if you’re setting up a jump scare in a horror film. For me, the almost wordless scene of the two lads from the campsite going to the apartment block and finding the gun and the key in the lamp, and then waiting for the person to arrive at the door—all of that is just about building tension and making you feel uneasy before, boom, he pulls the trigger. And the difference between that and an action sequence is that you pull the trigger, and then you sustain that high energy level all the way throughout. I knew, through Corin and Xavier’s work, that they would have absolutely no problem nailing those tension beats and bringing all of that stuff out.
Peaky Blinders casts a big shadow in the U.K., and Gangs of London differentiates itself from that hit via its modern setting, as well as its multicultural cast of characters. Was that always part of your initial plan to set the show apart from other gangster shows?
If you strip away the genre element of it, London is one of the most multicultural places I’ve been to. In a way, it’s got similarities to New York. When I first went to New York, I remember being in awe of it. And when I go to London, that thing of being able to walk down the street and hear five, six, 10 different languages being spoken at once, all in different parts of the same street, it’s a beautiful thing. When it came to doing the show, we knew we wanted to do something that represented London in a way that, yes, it’s super-multicultural, it’s amazing. It’s a global city.
Sope, who plays Elliot, was a find. I credit Kelly [Valentine Hendry], our casting director, for that, because she knew of him. Initially, he presented to us for the role of Alex, and he did an amazing read and we loved him for that—because I think at the time, Paapa wasn’t available to play Alex. And then I think Sope’s agent pitched the idea of him coming on to play Elliot, so me and Matt [Flannery] were like, that’s an outside-the-box idea, because we had already locked in on him as Alex. He came in and did a read as Elliot, and he was really good. Then we were like, can he fight? So he came in and did a fight test with the boys, and our fight coordinator assistant Chris [Waite] did it with him and was like, “Oh, he’s really good!” When Chris says that, you think, I guess we have a winner here! So we started shooting with Sope in the first episode, and it was one of those things where as soon as you saw him on screen, everyone in the crew was like, he is really charismatic. There’s an old-school movie star charisma about him. We were blown away.
Gangs of London is nominally based on a 2006 PSP video game. Did you feel any obligation to stick to that source in any way?
It was one of those things where, Pulse had the rights to the video game, and initially they wanted to do a film franchise adaptation. What happened for me, I looked at it and thought, London becomes a sandbox and there’s all this criminality in it, and that gives me more freedom. I was like, I’ve got my own concept for something. The way The Godfather starts off with a wedding, I want to start mine with a funeral—and then use the funeral as a construct to meet everybody, and then it mushrooms out from there. I liked my own central concept more, and pushed that at them and said it should be a long-form TV show, not a film. We won’t get to spend enough time with our characters in a film as we would in a TV show. You can’t devote the first five minutes of a film to another character, but we can do that in act three, act four, act five, and then explore the world more. The game is fine—it’s good—but it wasn’t something I was going to lean on for narrative tips, or storylines.
Fans have long been clamoring for The Raid 3. Is there any hope?
Not really. I’m so sorry! I hate doing this, because I feel so touched and blessed by what those films did for me, and I love my times on those movies. They were formative for me. But the storyline I had for part three only really could have been made if I’d made it two or three years later. Because The Raid 3 was going to pick up immediately after the end of the second one, it was going to be a continuation of the story. It’s been seven years since I did The Raid 2. I know I’ve aged in seven years [Laughs], and I don’t know about the other guys. Iko [Uwais] still looks in ship-shape…
He looks pretty fierce.
He looks more ripped now than he did back then [Laughs]. But yeah, no, I don’t think so. What I definitely, definitely want to do at some point—and try to figure out a slot for it, when it’d work, and we’ve talked about it so many times—is I’d love to do the ultimate period martial-arts film with those guys. I’d love to go back and do something that was a love letter to the classic martial-arts movies. Hopefully Iko can stay in good shape and ripped, and we can still do it while his knees are working the way they should be.
You were attached to the WB/DC superhero spin-off Deathstroke, but that didn’t pan out. And you haven’t yet gone the big-time blockbuster route. Do you have any interest in enormous projects like that?
I don’t know, to be honest. Havoc is the next thing I’m doing, and that is essentially me somehow convincing Tom Hardy and Forest Whitaker to be in a heroic bloodshed movie [Laughs], so that’s the thrill for me. I still get to play in my sandbox with these incredibly talented actors, and with the support of Netflix behind it. I’m really excited about that project, and that’s a great opportunity for me to try something different again. I was obviously attached at one point, a long, long time ago, to Deathstroke, and that didn’t happen. I’m not a big comic book reader, if I’m honest with you. A lot of the stuff that I read, if it’s comic book-based, tends to hail from Japan. So if there’s something out there that’s a property, I’d probably be more interested and excited by that. I knew a little bit about Deathstroke, but not too much. When I started doing a deep-dive on it, I realized there were like 3-4 versions of his origin about how he lost his eye, and I thought, okay, there’s quite a bit of flexibility there.
But even then, I would have wanted to make that in a way that felt leaner; I wouldn’t have gone for a two-and-a-half-hour thing. I love some of the old comic book stuff when it was like an hour and 40 minutes—you’re in, you’re out, good punchy moments, and don’t overstay their welcome. That was more my vibe on it. It depends. Sometimes they can take themselves a bit too seriously, and I like to have fun as well when watching those movies. I just talked myself out of so many jobs now! [Laughs]