Gangs Of Lagos arrives to bolster even further Nollywood’s politics-crime collection, a growing segment that was already nicely stocked with Kemi Adetiba’s “King Of Boys” (and its sequel series), Jade Osiberu’s Brotherhood and Chinenye Nworah’s Shanty Town series. Like the bulk of Nollywood’s biggest releases, a setting is provided as Lagos State, but with political tensions still hanging in the air after Nigeria’s just-concluded election season, this choice of location is given greater context than purely the cinematographic.
Gangs Of Lagos comes closest of this contingent to mirroring real life. A political party, the PND, has been in power since 1999, similar to the ACN/APC’s 24 year rule in real life Lagos; a highly influential individual, Olorogun, has been directly responsible for providing the state’s governors in this period, just like Bola Ahmed Tinubu has been at the forefront of the campaign of every eventual winner of governorship elections post-1999, save for when he ran himself. Where fiction drifts from reality is in the manner this power is retained, and Gangs Of Lagos has gone for the hyperviolent version in which elections are fought for with guns and clubs and not votes.
For a film that seeks to be a mirror to real life events, the very first scene is perhaps not the best place to stray from reality. The Eyo masquerades of Lagos Island, whose place in society heralds transition between Lagos Kings, are granted additional job descriptions as assassins and crime lords in their adaptation here, where an Eyo masquerade breaks into the home of a man and kills him. In the movie’s final act we get some significance to this, but even that does not suffice for the contortion of culture that has occurred to satisfy this plot point, and their use in this manner remains largely unnecessary.
Between these scenes the movie follows the life of Obalola, who is first played as a child by Maleek Sanni (of Ikorodu Bois). We quickly learn that our protagonist is no saint, and our introduction to the child is a traffic robbery that he and his friends (Gift and Ify, played by Ashafa Salamot and Oluwanifemi Lawal as their young selves) execute in broad daylight. This is one of a few sequences that occur in succession—a traffic robbery mere metres away from a police officer, extortion of street traders by touts, illegal gambling over fighting rams—that serve the dual purpose of setting the movie in its lawless context and providing parallels to real life Lagos.
After this theft, Obalola gets mixed up with major characters in Lagos’ underground world. His streetwise boldness adheres him to Nino, (played with a sophisticated swagger by Tayo Faniran) who adopts him. Eventually, Nino is killed by unknown assailants, and with his adopted father now murdered like his biological one, Obalola is stripped of his shield from the darker sides of the community that surrounds him. Sanni hands the baton to Tobi Bakre, and we get to see how our protagonist has grown to take an active part in Isale Eko’s crime landscape.
Obalola and Gift (played in adulthood by Adesuwa Etomi) are now Kazeem’s fierce henchmen, while the relatively benign Ify (played in adulthood by Chiké, the artist) is handed relatively benign tasks. With Kazeem’s excesses unchecked by Nino, his desperation to secure political victory for Olorogun will drive him to lengths too dark for our plucky trio, and a final showdown ensues when they attempt to depose him from his throne and put a definitive end to Isale Eko’s vicious cycle of violent power-grabbing.
Other films and movies in this genre have relied on strong performances by its villains and anti-heroes (Sola Sobowale in King Of Boys, Chidi Mokeme in Shanty Town) that have on their own elevated their respective films a clear level above what would have been obtainable. Olarotimi Fakunle is charged with this in Gangs Of Lagos, and his portrayal of Kazeem as the cunning, ruthless mob boss has a similar ceiling-raising effect for the entire film.
It is Fakunle’s depiction that helps sell the character’s morbid unpredictability that is his greatest weapon—he personally murders a major adversary in a barbershop in broad daylight, and afterwards entrusts to Ify, a most unlikely assassin, to “take care” of the barber. This particular sequence also exposes how strong actor performances and the emotional weight of the characters they carry help paper over cursory writing, for there were several witnesses at the barbershop who saw about as much as the barber, so if he was marked to die, why weren’t they?
Other plot deficiencies are helped by a cast that does its best with the script before it. Leading man Obalola and woman Gift avoid a clichéd romance that could have dampened the weight of the plot. Instead, they are given their respective partners in Muri Toronto (Yhemo Lee) and Teni (Bimbo Ademoye).
The latter is the more important character. She is Kazeem’s daughter and the apple of his eye, and her relationship with Obalola will allow for some meaningful conversation on how even the most ruthless politicians will shield their loved ones like eggs while the children of nobody execute their dirty work.
Ultimately, Gangs Of Lagos is a political action movie that fixates on the action side of things, so much that its makers may need to be reminded that every movie is only as good as its story. The fight scenes, to compensate, are drawn out and extensive set-pieces, with filmmakers eager to show just how much improvement Nollywood has made in the stunts department. They make for impressive eye candy, but too many cooks spoil the broth, so that while Obalola’s 1 on 1 standoffs with Kazeem and Kash (Gang leader played by Zlatan, the artist) are exciting, a hundred thugs in a medieval-like street melee with a variety of sharp and blunt weapons suspends reality a little too much, especially when one of them is wielding a shotgun.
The film excels at what it takes on—gritty crime, and shining a torch to Lagos/Nigerian politics. But it is sad that it would limit its scope this narrowly and not attempt to take on even more, like humanising the damage done by the many street battles. Olorogun’s opponent in the elections is Bamidele Olanrewaju, (played ironically by real-life APC-supporting Toyin Abraham) but for all of her speeches about ending tyranny and autocracy, the film does not do enough to develop her character as the breath of fresh air Lagos needs. A number of minor cast too, like Kash, London, and Terrible would have benefitted from an extra layer or two, in the absence of which they will have to settle for being story-less punching bags for our primary cast.
So while its missed opportunities cannot be ignored, Gangs Of Lagos deserves praise for taking on such a poignant and immediate political issue, and especially for having the backbone to go beyond the generic ‘bad politician’ character and actually point fingers, even if only half-heartedly. Its stunt directors will also commend themselves for a job well done, even though they are given too much to do. For its ending it ties what is left of its story and characters in a neat bow, and Jade Osiberu will rest satisfied that she has once more raised the bar for action movies in Nollywood.