Organised crime in London, as we know it in the form it took from the nineteen-sixties onwards, can be traced back to the rivalry between two men, Jack Comer (Terry Stone), nicknamed Spot, and Billy Hill (Leo Gregory), protégé of Spot's first big rival, Alf White (Jamie Foreman). While the Jewish gangster claimed he was the man who ensured Oswald Mosely's Blackshirts were beaten down just before World War II, he was still not a pleasant chap to be around, for the preferred method of communication among these hoodlums was violence to ensure they held onto whatever power they had. And by power, they meant money: the two went hand in hand down the years..
Simon Rumley directed this true crime yarn, one of a seeming billion low budget British crime dramas to emerge since the nineties to service the DVD and latterly, streaming market, where they could make their money back with surprising ease, there being a ready-made audience for watching your basic (at times, very basic) guns and geezers mini-epic. Here the emphasis was on gangster movies past, yes, works like The Long Good Friday, but as the title alluded, to Sergio Leone's tale of Jewish gangsters in New York Once Upon a Time in America; there were Jewish gangsters here as well, and they were just as unlovely as the ones in the Italian maestro's efforts.
This was a project whose inception came from Stone, whose life story sounded as if it would be fertile ground for precisely one of these lesser funded crime sagas (essentially, from salesman to club and dance promoter, to getting in with organised crime he did not want a part of, to reinvention in an alternate area of the entertainment world, presenting himself as an actor and filmmaker). He was not the villain of the proportions you saw played out here, but he was aware of what these people were capable of, and could at least add a sense of authenticity even if the era he had arisen during had been half a century or so after the criminals depicted in this enjoyed their heyday.
But did they enjoy it? The message here, subversive for a British gangster flick of this age, was that violence was no fun at all, curious for a genre that more often than not invited its audience to revel in actors playing yobs who thoroughly appreciated a good punch-up. The point here was that said punch-ups became the motivation rather than the accumulation of wealth, so the reputation for intimidation might have funded their lifestyles, but it was something that needed plenty of maintenance, particularly when it looked like an easy way for the powerless to gain standing. Therefore time and again Rumley staged scenes of characters getting beaten up and slashed, the perpetrators careful not to kill so they will not be subjected to the death penalty, but if you're scary enough there are perks.
Like your victims refusing to identify you to the law, so you can get away with bullying your path through life with relative impunity. However, there was nothing to savour in being king of the castle, or even a preferred underling to the king, as it was a vicious cycle you had to commit to, endlessly re-establishing yourself as a major player to the point that it meant next to nothing of any worth, you were simply the most effective thug and nobody respected you, they feared you but that was far from the same thing. Rumley filled his soundtrack with irksomely inauthentic-sounding songs for faux-period flavour, and if you had been captivated by his Crowhurst film it was unlikely you would go for this with the same enthusiasm, but there was such a tone of despair here that it was difficult for all but the most dedicated violence voyeur to get much pleasure out of it. We were watching a bunch of men and their female hangers-on chopping and punching their way through each other, with the point of their wasted lives lost on them all by the time the credits rolled and the Krays appeared. Music by Richard Chester.