In the vein of true crime recollections such as popular TV series Underbelly, the new Paramount+ crime thriller, Last King of the Cross is the latest re-telling of Australia’s gritty and brutal gangland past. Set in Sydney’s infamous nightclub district, King’s Cross, this 10-part series chronicles the rise of the infamous John Ibrahim, who as a young Lebanese-Australian teenager, hustled his way into Sydney’s nightclub scene, survived a brutal stabbing, and became one of the most notorious figures in Australia’s criminal history to never actually be convicted of any crimes.
The series opens in the mid-1990s, as John Ibrahim (Lincoln Younes), now in his late 20s, is by the bedside of his dying father. When asking where his son is, John’s father alludes to the fact that he no longer considers John to be his son. Later, at the Ibrahim father’s funeral, the all-stars of Sydney’s criminal empires are in attendance, including Ezra Shipman (Tim Roth), who’s attendance brings the mourning crowd to a shocking stand still, and his intimidating, brooding presence is felt.
Jumping back to the 1980s, Last King of the Cross picks up the pace with a Goodfellas style montage that introduces a cavalcade of players in this underground game, including big hitters such as Roth’s Ezra Shipman, the grunts on the ground doing the dirty work like ‘Big Tony’ (Matt Nable, who’s character also narrates the show), and the New South Wales detective (Callum Mulvey) who will work on the thin line between cop and corrupt.
This opening 15 minutes of the show is a chaotic back and forth as we see John Ibrahim in the two different points in his life. While the interaction between John and his father in the 1990s does set up an intriguing destination for John’s journey, expected to be an exploration for John into his emotional morality and what he sacrificed for success, the 1980s montage seemingly only exists to boast the actors on display. There’s a sense that it’s trying to give the show a bit more validity through getting people like Tim Roth, Callum Mulvey and Matt Nable to star in it. The characters they play all naturally find there way into the narrative later in the episode (some not even until episode 2), so it almost makes their earlier introductions tonally mismatch with how the rest of the series plays out.
There is undoubtedly an engaging energy to Last King of the Cross as the first episode predominately follows the younger, 1980s John Ibrahim (Malek Alkoni), who’s overt ambitious nature makes him a character worth rooting for. However, the energy comes through the character of John, and the performances from Alkoni, rather than that quick cut, music-led montage from earlier. The direction for the rest of the series is much more traditional and less stylised, which is why that tonal mismatch technically sticks out a lot more.
John’s hustle is admirable, as the 16 year old earns his keep buying coffees and food for high-rollers playing poker in a nightclub that his brother works for (and not necessarily ‘work’ in the traditional poker-dealer sense). In fact, it’s John’s brother, Sam (Claude Jabbour), who’s older sibling influence has attracted John to King’s Cross and the lifestyle that comes with the neon-lit debauchery. Ibrahim’s care for people close to him is also only display as he befriends a young, seemingly homeless teenager. But it’s not before long when the domino effect of events, starting with a tragically violent event, forces John to make a decision that will even more so get the attention of those who truly have control over the Cross.
The audience’s investment into John’s story predominantly lies in Lincoln Younes performance, which is completely fine. Ibrahim was a good-looking, confident and incredibly in-shape man in his 20s, and Younes physicality replicates that perfectly. However, after seeing such an energy in Alkoni’s performance of John in his younger years, there’s a little to be desired in Younes take, which seems much more calculated and reserved. There is no question that the trauma of surviving a brutal stabbing in his teenage years would have affected him, but there is a glaring difference in the personalities of the two age-separated John Ibrahim’s.
A series highlight is Matt Nable as ‘Fat Tony’, who’s general demeanour and ability to calmly put the fear of God into people (both mentally and physically) is balanced well in Nable’s performance. The intensity of his stare, with the slow, deep tones of his voice create a subdued unpredictability in his portrayal of Tony, and is exciting to watch on screen. On the flip side, arguably the biggest star in the show, Tim Roth, does seem like he isn’t as invested in the character. He is sporadically used in the opening two episodes of the show, so perhaps more is to come for the development of Ezra Shipman as a character, but so far, it feels like you’re just watching Tim Roth.
Of course, it wouldn’t be an Australian crime series without the adult orientated additions of copious amounts of drugs, sex, nudity, violence, and swearing – in which Last King of the Cross provides by the tonne. However, it is seemingly used more sparingly, and in turn, to a better effect, than previous shows have in the past. The violence is brutal but never glorified. Whether it’s unprovoked attacks or retaliation and revenge, the show does a decent job of making these acts feel wrong. And the setting of King’s Cross, with its countless strip clubs and brothels, lend to the shows more sexual scenes. But, similar to the violence, it it’s shown through a much dirtier, grittier lens, showcasing the objectification of women during this era by the gross men who thought they were more powerful than they were.
Last King of the Cross doesn’t stray too far from the formula of Australian gangland retellings. It’s a visceral, gritty and dirty world portrayed on screen, but it has the patience and depth to really understand where John Ibrahim came from, and the events the formed his infamous persona. Technically, some tonal mismatches in the direction and pacing of the show do take away from the full immersion into this world, but if you’re here for a bit of gritty shlock about Australian crime, then Last King of the Cross will tick the boxes you need to enjoy it.