When gangsters disguised in Adamu orisha attire murder his father, Obalola, a precocious boy, resorts to a life of crime. With his friends Ify and Gift, he takes to theft as a pastime until a fortuitous encounter with Kazeem and Nino, two middle-level crime lords in Isale-Eko. Impressed by Obalola’s intellect and bravery, Nino takes him under his wings, despite his mother’s displeasure, and promises to fund his education. These lofty dreams are cut to size when Nino is brutally murdered. The consequent bloodletting changes the lives of Obalola and his friends.
Vengeance, power, betrayal, and survival are recurring themes in Gangs of Lagos, a gritty crime thriller set in Lagos and spanning a decade and a half. Directed by Jade Osiberu (Isoken, Brotherhood), who co-writes with Kayode Jegede, the movie features a star-studded cast that comprises Tobi Bakre (Brotherhood), Adesua Etomi-Wellington (The Wedding Party, Sugar Rush), Olarotimi Fakunle, Chike -Ezekpeazu Osebuka, Chioma Chukwuka Akpotha, Bimbo Ademoye (Anikulapo), Tayo Faniran, Wasiu Alabi Pasuma, Damilola Ogunsi, Omoniyi Temidayo “Zlatan Ibile” Raphael, Black Kamoru, Idowu’ Yhemo Lee” Adeyemi and Iyabo Ojo.
With a runtime of 125 minutes, Gangs is reminiscent of Hollywood crime classics like Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Scorsese’s Gangs of New York (2002): you could draw parallels from the whipping of Henry Hill’s character in Goodfellas to the whipping of Obalola by his mother (Ojo), Nino’s personability hints at the charisma of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, and the abattoir scene where Kazeem draws out an associate’s entrails with a dagger is a nod to Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.
With his less imposing and better-developed character (compared to his role in Brotherhood), Bakre shines as Obalola. Fakunle, quite the thespian, hands in a virtuoso performance as the ruthless villain Kazeem. Akpotha is the protective mother to a promiscuous but talented Ify is played by Osebuka, whose exemplary interpretation is cemented by an emotional monologue that will remain etched in the memory of cinephiles. Etomi-Wellington fails to convince as a fist-swinging, gun-slinging gangbanger: her scowls and moves don’t cut it. It doesn’t help that her character has no convincing backstory.
Gangs slots itself into the unofficial crime-drama-as-political-commentary sub-genre, a terrain previously trod by movies like Kemi Adetiba’s King of Boys (2018) and shows like Dimeji Ajibola’s Shanty Town (2023). Thanks to Muyiwa Oyedele’s stellar contribution as Director of Photography and the visual effects input of Embr.Io VFX, Emmanuel Bassey and Creed Motions, it is easy on the eye.
But where the movie succeeds in spectacle, it fails to execute certain elements. The dialogue leaves much to be desired beyond the subtitling errors (which would cause eye rolls): why is the Pidgin spoken by street kids less fluent than Graduate students struggling to code-switch? Scratch that, why are the thoughts of a secondary school delivered in Queen’s English? “I did not choose this life” is a line that is hard to forgive. Yoruba language enthusiasts would also grimace at how the interpretations and intonations of names and pronunciations were mangled.
The movie’s plot tries to stay afloat, but some scenes will cause fingers to dig into scalps in a scratching motion. It would take an otherworldly level of lust to engage in a tryst while bleeding from the forehead minutes after escaping a murder attempt. Vengeance and ambition are the overarching themes, but they need to be established more strongly, and the realisation is a tad contrived. One can argue that the exploration of Isale Eko’s crime underbelly was superficial: maybe it was a case of not wanting the film to stretch too long, but was there too much of Obalola and too little of Lagos’ mean streets?
Brilliant visual effects fail to paper over the amateurish fight sequence and choreography. There’s also the small matter of inserting Hollywood B-movie aesthetics into a Nigerian crime drama scene: anyone who has lived in the South-South or South-Western regions of Nigeria would know that in a gangland standoff, there’s no such thing as “honourable fighting like a man” when one party is short of weapons. For a film so deliberately titled, this is laughable. Are the times accurately captured? That’s debatable, too. Sure enough, there are wads of 200 Naira notes and KWAM1’s “Funky Fuji” serves as a score to one of the earlier scenes, but the makeup on the face of Yvonne Jegede’s character is too modern for the mid-2000s, and a Snickers wrap inadvertently pops up like a Starbucks cup in Westeros.
Speaking of editing errors, a crew member clutching equipment has no business in a drone shot of the movie’s final action scene. Gangs of Lagos is an entertaining body of work, but it is not Osiberu’s best crime film yet; The Trade and Brotherhood justle for the top spot.
Jerry Chiemeke writes from northwest London.