The melon budget on this brutal period crime drama must have been eye-watering. Jaws are bashed, skulls stomped on and switchblades do unpleasant things to faces, all accompanied by that trademark smushing noise a seasoned sound-effects expert can extract from a piece of fruit. Five a day? Quadruple it.
In fact, there’s so many kickings, beatings and slashings administered during its retelling of a chapter in London’s gangland history that ‘Once Upon a Time in London’ almost tips into self-parody. As the fists rained down, I caught myself wondering whether it might all, in fact, be a subtle send-up of those geezer-powered Nick Love thrillers like ‘The Outlaw’ and ‘The Business’. But as it plots its bloody course through the Blitz-era, post-war black marketeering, gambling rackets and nightclub brawls, director Simon Rumley’s sights are clearly set on a ‘Peaky Blinders’-style crime saga. It’s actually a pretty earnest film beneath all the cartoon violence.
Rumley has chops, as he proved with his psychologically acute biopic of yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, and when his film does stop for a breather between fights, it offers a tour of Soho fleshpots and Whitechapel dives that’s embroidered with smoky period detail and outsized Cockneys. Sadly, there’s no one worth rooting for in its pantheon of prop-a villains: not Jewish thug Jack ‘the spot’ Comer (Terry Stone), and definitely not Billy Hill (Leo Gregory), a slimy low-level crim with big plans. The dialogue isn’t much to write home about, either. Then again, this is a film that speaks with its fists.