Once Upon a Time In London: A Netflix Review
Updated: Feb 13
A UK crime film by director/writer Simon Rumley and written by Will Gilbey and Terry Stone. It deals with infamous pre Kray era gang bosses Billy Hill and Jack Comer (Jack Spot). It focuses mostly on the rise of Billy Hill to supreme boss of London, and his fierce rivalry with Jack Spot.
The review calls it "Peaky Blinders meets Legend". This reminded me of Hard Men - the uber-violent Brit-flick that people sometimes love, regardless of the fact that it was patently absurd and terrible. That film was reviewed as a "Reservoir Dogs meets Lock Stock". Now it is the case with both of these comparisons, and many others, that they are often absolutely spot-on in style and approach but not in quality. Certainly that is the case here. The originality and watchability of Peaky Blinders is not something you should expect. Same applies to the humour and cleverness of Legend. Not here. Not that it is a terrible film. Far from it.
To start the movie, we see Jack Comer (Terry Stone) rise to power. He battles the White gang, alligned with the (doubtlessly included with Peaky Blinder fever in mind) Sabini gang. Comer goes to jail for a short sentence.
After the policy of all Italian men being arrested at the outbreak of WWII, the Sabini gang are done. Paradoxically, all Englishmen with less than a year to serve (Comer) are let out to help with the war effort. Of course the "effort" part was a very universally applicable term. He made a lot of effort, for sure.
The focus then shifts, somewhat inexplicably and also very awkwardly, to Billy Hill. Mainly his immediately ego-wrangling and power-struggle frought alignment with Comer (a problem alluded to in a terrible attempt at foreshadowing in their first face to face meeting in a Brothel).
We meet the ubiquitous Frankie Fraser (played by the, to my reckoning, best outcome from the Football Factory generation of movies, Roland Manookian). Fraser is not someone I enjoy seeing and he added no value to this movie - a total waste of possibly the only rising star this movement has. At the same time, worship for that violent, abusive, and murderous thug sickened me. So I will accept it as a piece of poetic justice.
The wifey-mistress love triangle is coarse and brutish. There are some really weirdly inserted (ahem!) sex scenes, with a three-in-a-bed all-girl display that is so clunky it felt as if Tyler Durden had spliced it in from the projectionists box.
I give props to the violence. The fistfights were not sound-happy and distance haymaker-swinging. More the up-close wrangling and grappling we expect is how it would be. The knifing scenes were not gory, nor were they softened. They held a silent collection of awkward swipes that ended in blood pouring out. No loud "schlick" sounds and glinting or clanging. It was quiet and gruesome.
That is the point. It was a beautifully shot film. I feel bad opening this with the names of the writers. I should have said the cinematographers, and the grips, and the dolly, and many others. It had nice filters. It was stylish. That is not under question.
The writing in this film is a problem, for sure. That said, I did like the transference of sympathies - that is something I enjoy. I cannot say the same works when applied to the continuity. I often did not know what I was watching. I felt like they would be writing it when they would remember something they should've included, and then just shoved it in at the most plausible and convenient place. Then it would often be confused as to what it was about. It was supposed to be a gangster movie about blokes "runnin' the firm" and "'avin to do me share o' bird, as per. I don't whistle at chokey" A trope amusingly at odds with the weeping wifey in the public gallery when Hill gets a two stretch for being "staunch and not bein' a slag that grasses etc etc" considering the paltry two year sentence to a jail hardened gangster - she reacts as if she will never see him again. Bemusing.
Those who know history, will know how this story ends. The inclusion of.....I said no spoliers. I will honour that. All I will say, full circle to the prison letter.....no sale Ron, Reg.
This is a perfect late night home with the lads/ladies, and a few more beers and something to watch and get rowdy at. Plenty of action and lines that sound good in a threatening tone.
Don't expect to be quoting it like you do with Snatch years down the line as I doubt you will even remember the title.
Final verdict, pretty, but forgettable. 5/10