Once Upon A Time In London deals with the period of time when British organized crime was still in its infancy, before the Krays came to power and made every London criminal with a good wardrobe into a minor celebrity. The movie starts in the 30s with Jack Comer (Terry Stone) forming a crime syndicate out of a group of anti-fascists who originally came together to battle the members of Oswald Mosley’s pro-Nazi British Union of Fascists. However, because that story would have possibly been interesting, the film then switches focus to Billy Hill (Leo Gregory), a younger gangster who used to work with Jack but who now wants to displace Jack as the top man in London organized crime.
It’s based on a true story and Jack Comer (or Jack Spot, as he was better known as) and Billy Hill were the type of flamboyant gangsters that could, in theory, be the subject of a really good movie. Unfortunately, Once Upon A Time In London is not that film. It’s a strange film, one that is overlong but which also feels as if it’s missing key scenes. It’s often hard to follow why anyone is doing what they are doing. The action skips from violent set piece to violent set piece but the film never takes the time to explain who is fighting who or for what reason so all of the violence doesn’t add up to anything. The constant fights and torture scenes feel like they were lifted from other, better gangster films. You’re never sure why Jack and Billy were working together in the first place so there’s no emotional stakes to their eventual rivalry. That neither Terry Stone nor Leo Gregory gives a particularly interesting performance definitely does not help matters.
Once Upon A Time In London does deserve credit for its efforts to recreate the London of the 40s and 50s. The clubs and the shabby suits all feel authentic and the dialogue is believably pungent, if not particularly interesting. But, for all the care that went into recreating the era, the movie struggles to get us to care about any of it.
Once Upon A Time In London is disappointment. There are many great stories to be told about British organized crime but this isn’t one of them.