StarsStarsStarsStarsStars

Last King of the Cross (Paramount+) review: solid world building with overplayed violence

Last King of the Cross is a series about violent criminals, but if the series has a weak link, it’s the violent crime.

Blame Martin Scorsese. He probably wasn’t the first to popularise stories about organised crime with a ‘it was fun while it lasted’ moral, but with Goodfellas and Casino he really hammered home the idea that there was a golden age of organised crime, and when it passed everything fell apart. Now Last King of the Cross is here to make audiences feel nostalgic for Australia’s golden age of bribery, bashings and police corruption: Sydney’s King’s Cross in the 80s and 90s.

Read: Goncharov, I hardly knew ye: how the internet invented a Scorsese film

The story of the Cross

John Ibrahim (Lincoln Younes) grew up tough. As a child his family came to Sydney from war-torn Lebanon; with his father absent, it was up to his brother Sam (Claude Jabbour) to support the family. Sam’s skills found an outlet on the streets of Kings Cross, where he became the strip’s top enforcer, making sure the club owners funnelled their kickbacks into a criminal system with Ezra Shipman (Tim Roth) at the top. Sam did his best to discourage his younger brother from following in his violent footsteps: no prizes for guessing how that worked out.

Over the last three decades, the real-life Ibrahim has been a highly successful nightclub owner and property magnate. There’s also been a number of accusations from NSW police about his links to the drug trade, alongside suggestions of extortion and other criminal activities. Not to mention renting a house out to his business partner Kyle Sandilands.

Read: Transfusion on Stan review: interrogating masculine clichés

So while this ten-part series is ‘inspired by’ John Ibrahim’s memoir (also titled Last King of the Cross) and features Ibrahim as one of the producers, there’s also a lot of legal disclaimers up front to let you know this is ‘a dramatisation’ that is ‘inspired by’ actual people and events. Just in case anyone thought Ibrahim would sign off on a series that showed him blatantly committing a surprisingly large number of violent crimes.

Read: The Last of Us (Binge) full season review – A strong, worthwhile adaptation

Not our first rodeo

Back in 2010 long-running crime series Underbelly did their own version of John Ibrahim’s rise with Underbelly: The Golden Mile. This is a more polished series in just about every way; they even built a set to recreate the 90s-era Cross in a Western Sydney carpark. But at its seedy heart it doesn’t veer far from the earlier series’ well-beaten track. To be fair, it’s hard to imagine a series set during the golden age of The Cross that doesn’t feature a lot of strip clubs.

There’s a stellar supporting cast here, including Australia’s current favourite small screen tough guy Matt Nable as Shipman’s right-hand man and Callan Mulvey as the Cross’s top bent cop. But it’s Younes’ magnetic performance that grabs the spotlight in his every scene, making Ibrahim a convincing and charming character even as the series around him seems more interested in playing up the legend.

You’d think the Cross at its sleazy height might be a frustrating setting for a teenage boy. Fortunately Ibrahim is such a sex magnet the working girls are throwing themselves at him, especially when he’s lurking around their upstairs storeroom spying out the window to see how the Cross really works. Guess all those empty boxes really turn the girls on.

It’s a cliché to say ‘the setting is the main character’, but this does take its time explaining how the criminal ecosystem of The Cross works, complete with networks of favours, wads of old paper currency and crims with names like Skinny Steve and Ashtray Frank. It’s a better series for it; it’s the kind of solid world-building that gives the drama a firm foundation, and provides real stakes when it all starts to come apart.

Senseless violence

Last King of the Cross is a series about violent criminals, but if the series has a weak link, it’s the violent crime. It’s not badly handled, but it rarely offers audiences anything fresh. The climax of the second episode is a scene that could have been lifted from a Tarantino knock-off, where the body count rises dramatically and in the end Ibrahim symbolically burns his past to embrace his life of crime. It’s fine, just nothing special (even with a quirky snake cameo). We’ve seen it all before.

The episode’s real dramatic high point comes when Ibrahim bails up the owner of a struggling nightclub and, with a confidence we know he doesn’t really possess, runs through facts and figures that show he knows the business better than anyone – and if he’s put in charge, everyone is going to get rich. Though it’s safe to assume Ibrahim will be lining his own pockets first.

The old Cross may be gone but Ibrahim lives on. Last King of the Cross isn’t the freshest crime story ever told, but an ending where the crime boss stays on top after the world around him crumbles? That’s one for the books.

Last King of the Cross is on Paramount+ from February 17

Anthony Morris is a freelance film and television writer. He’s been a regular contributor to The Big Issue, Empire Magazine, Junkee, Broadsheet, The Wheeler Centre and Forte Magazine, where he’s currently the film editor. Other publications he’s contributed to include Vice, The Vine, Kill Your Darlings (where he was their online film columnist), The Lifted Brow, Urban Walkabout and Spook Magazine. He’s the co-author of hit romantic comedy novel The Hot Guy, and he’s also written some short stories he’d rather you didn’t mention. You can follow him on Twitter @morrbeat and read some of his reviews on the blog It’s Better in the Dark.