Oozing with atmosphere and dripping with violence, “Once Upon a Time in London” aims to deliver a 30 year history of the London Mob. Or Mobs.
Starting in the Great Depression, with Jewish mobsters brawling in the streets with British fascists, and running to the moment where London’s most famous gangsters — the much-documented monsters The Krays — took over, it’s basically the true story of all the thugs who inspired every Guy Ritchie gangster movie, and every other British gangster movie.
Mugs with colorful names like “Jack Spot,” Odd Legs, Bears Breath and Moishe Blueball, Electric Alfie, Elephant Dave and Billy the Yank ran rackets, bookmaking and robberies, scamming rationing during the war, and did shakedowns and extortion.
And you’d think a more colorful film could have been wrung out of this lot, and not the dry — save for the savagery and staggering amount of bloodshed — jerky drift through the decades that director Simon Rumley and British acting’s C-list deliver.
Jack “Spot” Comer (Terry Stone, who also had a hand in the script) was the Jewish head of a mob that took on Britain’s fascists, led by Sir Oswald Mosley, in the streets, which the film is more interested in talking about than showing.
Because unlike Hollywood’s treatments of gangsters in the World War II era, there’s no romanticizing this lot. WWII was just a smorgasbord of fresh opportunities.
“‘Ooo knew wartime would be so good f’business?” one crows, at one point.
Jack Spot is depicted as a raving egomaniac with a short temper and zero violent impulse control. He sets the tone for the picture and the milieu — gang wars largely settled with fists, bats, knives and razors.
Because “only a mug would shoot someone. Because that’s the death penalty!”
They’re psychotics, but they’re not stupid. And they’re tough enough to deliver and suffer the blows, do time in hospitals and prisons, and wear the lifetime of scars such dirty work brought them.
Jack doesn’t mellow with age. As the years pass and the scars add up, he’s even more prone to delivers a beating, stabbing and slashing.
“I’M king o’the London UNDERWORLD!”
He says this a lot. Perhaps Mr. Stone added that to his portion of the script. But his performance is the heart of the picture and it is riveting in the most appalling ways.
Jack’s onetime underling and growing rival is Billy Hill, played by Leo Gregory of the lesser of the two movies about sailor Donald Crowhurst (also directed by Simon Rumley). Billy’s a smart aleck, more a lover than a brawler. He’s all over his Aggie (Hollie Earl) in the film’s early scenes.
Billy knows his place, pays whatever boss runs things in his territory his share. Until the days, several prison sentences later, when he doesn’t put up with that.
The script is more interested in chronology than cohesion. And with the thick, street accents, picking up on the story via dialogue is trickier (maybe watch it with closed captioning on) than simply following it from brutal fight and torture to “battles” and beatings that follow.
Rumley & Co. seem most intent on upping the violence ante from the various films about The Krays (Tom Hardy was in the most recent one, the Spandau Ballet Kemp brothers in another). They succeed in this.
But the movie’s very much a witless slog through dimly lit warehouses and pubs, the odd jazz guitar trio never lightening the mood, no gangster standing out for anything other than cruelty, bravado and toughness.
Netflix gave Martin Scorsese a blank check to make “The Irishman.” They couldn’t avail themselves of the exchange rate, pitch in with Signature (the producing studio) and get Ritchie, Matthew Vaughn or Paul McGuigan to do this justice?
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, graphic violence, sex, more violence and profanity
Cast:Terry Stone, Leo Gregory, Hollie Earl, Josh Myers, Christopher Dunne and Shereen Guerlin Ball.
Credits: Directed by Simon Rumley, script by Will Gilbey, Simon Rumley and Terry Stone. A Signature release on Netflix.
Running time: 1:51