Midway through the first season of Gangs of London, co-creator Gareth Evans sets aside numerous plot concerns—the mysterious murder of underworld kingpin Finn Wallace, which sets the story in motion; his son’s relentless search for the killer; an undercover cop’s rise through the ranks of the Wallace organization—for a superb standalone episode that highlights his talent for building tension and demolishing buildings. Its conceit is simple: Kinney Edwards, a gang leader from the Welsh “traveler” community, has hidden his son Darren away in a country house, where he will soon be discovered by a team of Danish assassins; Kinney, wounded and alone, must somehow reach Darren first and batten down the hatches for the siege to follow.
It’s a variation on the cinematic formula Evans perfected in his 2011 martial-arts masterpiece The Raid: Redemption, derided by Roger Ebert as “almost brutally cynical” for its relentlessly violent portrayal of a police assault on a drug lord’s compound. (Ebert apparently dislikes the cinema of man-versus-architecture and hated both Straw Dogs and Die Hard). In The Raid’s 2014 sequel, the Welsh director heightened the drama surrounding the destruction with an ensemble of fascinating auxiliary characters, and he gets similarly impressive turns from his side players in Gangs of London. Among these, none are more memorable than Kinney, played by the Welsh actor Mark Lewis Jones, whose performance is brutal, mesmerizing, and, ultimately, heartbreaking.
“At the front of every character in Gangs of London is this enormous capacity for extreme violence and brutality, but I think the success of the series lies just behind that,” Jones tells me. “These people are capable of huge violence, but that’s not all they are; at its heart this episode is about a father’s love for his son and the sacrifices he’s willing to make to save him.”
Those sacrifices include cutting a bullet from his own gut with a pocketknife before packing the wound with mud to stop the bleeding; pulling a worm from that wound after removing his earthen bandage; and stapling the wound shut on the floor of a filthy toilet stall at a pub in the Welsh countryside.
“There’s a lot of dirt, there’s a lot of blood, and a lot of me crawling around on the floor,” Jones says. “On something like this, you have to sort of throw yourself into the mud and the blood and kind of go for it. It becomes real and visceral. It’s not pretty and it’s not clever, but it really helps build up the tension.”
Ratcheting up that tension required more than Kinney’s near-constant peril. Months of pre-production work preceded several weeks of shooting on location in Wales, where Jones was able to evoke shades of Kinney that emerged as naturally as “dropping a little pebble in a pond and watching it ripple out.” As much as anything, the episode turns on quiet moments like the one Kinney shares with a horse that has carried him through the forest before succumbing to a wound not unlike his own. “The conversation Gareth and I were having was that Kinney kind of connects with this horse on some level,” Jones says. “It’s a moment where everything stops for this look at this other animal, and I think by this time Kinney’s reverted to being an animal himself.”
Determined not to die with that horse, Kinney pushes on towards the house where he’s hidden his son away—a house that was, in reality, constructed by production designer Tom Pierce specifically for the purpose of shooting the episode’s finale. “That house was built from the ground up, which made it possible for there to be metal shutters that come down over the windows,” says stunt coordinator Jude Poyer, who previously spent eight years in Hong Kong working with stars like Jackie Chan and Jet Li. “I was able to say: ‘Hey, we’re gonna have a stuntman drop down the fireplace and he’s gonna be set on fire (by Kinney) so I need it to be a bit bigger than a normal fireplace would be and I need the set to be fire proofed,’ because a normal set might not have those kinds of things built into it.”
About 300 meters away, Pierce built a secondary set for filming a scene in which an explosion on the roof sends assassins tumbling down into a gunfight in the attic. “Gareth knew he wanted to have an explosive breach on the roof,” Poyer says. “And I remembered seeing news footage from the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas—very scary footage where there were some ATF agents on the roof and somebody inside the compound starts shooting out through the wall at the agent and as he’s rolling out of the way bits of rooftop and wall are splintering around him. That image has always stuck in my mind and it fed into how we designed that sequence.”
Other influences, Poyer says, were more straightforwardly cinematic. “Gareth and I are big fans of Hong Kong filmmakers like John Woo and Ringo Lam and I think we’re very open and honest about referencing them and paying homage to them,” he says. “But I think there’s definitely the sense of a western in this episode, and I know Gareth is a big fan of Peckinpah.”
One of these Peckinpah-esque moments involves Kinney’s right-hand man, Mal, who is left mortally wounded after the gunfight in the attic. “When Richard Harrington’s character Mal is being shot to pieces as he’s dropping that bag of explosives out the window, the vast majority of those hits were visual effects,” Poyer says. “But the bomb explosion itself is real, and I think a lot of people remember it, because it disintegrates somebody. It just involves a bit of trickery: In one shot I had a stunt performer running and jumping while a small explosion goes off, and in a separate take there was a massive explosion but no stunt performer. Then on top of that a dummy was photographed in slow motion in front of a green screen and rigged to explode with blood bags. And combining those three elements together creates the shot that you see.”
In the midst of the explosions and gunfights, Evans’s camera work feels light and acrobatic, moving in concert with members of Poyer’s stunt team as they crash through windows and dance through minefields of squibs. For Jones, such scenes felt real enough that they “required very little acting.” Kinney and his son escape through the floorboards to an underground passage that takes them to a pier, bringing to a close the raid on the house, which Poyer says may be the best work he does in his career. “When I look at this episode of television, I think it does compare favorably to some feature films,” he says. “We have people on fire. We have people falling face first down a flight of stairs. We have people jumping through windows and jumping through roofs. We have explosions. But we’ve also got character and emotional payoff and the sense of having gone on a journey with this character of Kinney.”
Kinney’s journey ends with gunfire at his back as he pushes his son onward towards the boat that’s come to carry him off to some distant shore. “It’s almost Greek or Shakespearean how this father and son relationship comes to this tragic, awful end,” Jones says. “But there’s still this strength and beauty to it in Kinney’s defiance, which manifests itself as this fantasy that his son will make it to that boat.”
In reality, Kinney watches his son get shot to death at point blank range, without blinking, wincing, or looking away. “I think he feels he owes that to him in some way,” Jones says of his choice. “That he feels like if he’s looking at him, he’s still with him. There’s this enormous love there, and I think that look to witness his death is part of that love.”