Gangs of New York
Director : Martin Scorsese
Screenplay : Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan (story by Jay Cocks)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (Amsterdam Vallon), Daniel Day-Lewis (Bill the Butcher), Cameron Diaz (Jenny Everdeane), Jim Broadbent (Boss Tweed), John C. Reilly (Happy Jack), Henry Thomas (Johnny Sirocco), Brendan Gleeson (Monk)
The thing I always remember most vividly after seeing Martin Scorsese’s best films is the momentum. Whether it be the slow, methodical burn of Taxi Driver (1976), the purposefully infuriating stasis of The King of Comedy (1983), the melodramatic pull toward disaster in Cape Fear (1991), or the headlong existential rush of GoodFellas (1990) and Casino (1995), Scorsese is a master timing and pacing, able to cram his films with more visual information than one could imagine possible.
Thus, it is disappointing to find that the one thing his new film, Gangs of New York, truly lacks is momentum. Epic in virtually every sense of the word, the film is nonetheless slow and awkward in telling its revenge story set against the backdrop of New York City in the mid-1800s. This is a film that has been burning in the back of Scorsese’s mind since the early 1970s—his dream project. Of course, Scorsese has never been a commercial filmmaker in the way some of his New Hollywood compatriots such as Steven Spielberg or even Francis Ford Coppola are, so it shouldn’t be a complete shock that Gangs, despite its $100 million-plus budget and big-name movie stars, isn’t your typical holiday blockbuster.
But, this is not what is disappointing. Rather, it is that Scorsese, given his largest canvas yet on which to paint, failed to makes a film with the energy or passion we have come to expect from him. It’s all up there on the screen—blood, vengeance, sex, feuds, corruption—but Scorsese never manages to build up a head of steam and send it all hurtling through history the way he’s done in the past. Even with a year in the editing room alongside his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (whose best work was done on 1980’s Raging Bull), he couldn’t quite shape the material in a way that makes it truly compelling.
The impetus for Gangs of New York was a 1927 book of the same title about how the streets of America’s most famous city were besieged with gang warfare and corruption both low and high throughout the 19th century. This is the element of the film that Scorsese nails: the historical context. Filmed at Italy’s famed Cinecittá studios on a set that measured a mile and a half in diameter, Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti (who has worked with Scorsese on The Age of Innocence, Casino, and Kundun) reconstructed the Five Points area in lower Manhattan circa 1846–1863 in such detail that the film is worth seeing more than once just to soak it all up. The extremes of poverty, despair, and ethnic tensions that dominated the streets of New York at this time are exquisitely depicted—you literally feel the dirt under the fingernails and the stench in the alleyways. The Big Apple is, literally, rotten to the core.
Against this backdrop Scorsese tells the story of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young man who returns to the Five Points after growing up in a reformatory orphanage in order to avenge the death of his Irish immigrant father (Liam Father), who was killed by William Cutting, aka Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), a virulently xenophobic gang leader. Other than his quest to avenge his father, Amsterdam is a character largely lacking in definition; even though he is played by such a charismatic actor as DiCaprio, he doesn’t get into your heart. DiCaprio scowls and broods a lot, his eternal boyishness tempered by greasy long hair and a scraggly beard, but he never really smolders. This also goes for his relationship with a sly pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). They fight and flirt and are obviously deeply attracted to each other, but they relationship doesn’t pop and fizzle the way it should.
Day-Lewis, on the other hand, who hasn’t been on the big screen since 1997’s The Boxer, commands every scene he’s in. Bill the Butcher is one of the great screen villains of recent memory, leading a gang of so-called “Nativists” who declare themselves true Americans because they were born there and make it their goal in life to run out all immigrants (or at least control those who are already off the boat). With his chipped glass eye and overwhelming curled mustache, Bill the Butcher is cruel, twisted, and loathsome in every sense of the word, yet Day-Lewis’ phenomenal performance makes him terribly compelling, which makes it all the more difficult to identify with DiCaprio’s character.
Much has been made about the various battles to get Gangs of New York made, particularly between the perfectionist Scorsese and the bottom-line-watching executive producer Harvey Weinstein. Overschedule and overbudget during production, the film’s release was delayed several times, which has only heightened anticipation for those who are eagerly awaiting Scorsese’s long-awaited dream project, as well as for those who are curious to see if it becomes the new century’s Heaven’s Gate.
Alas, it is neither. Though hardly one of the Scorsese’s best films, Gangs of New York still has its strong points and was clearly the product of a gifted filmmaker. Aside from the production design, Scorsese creates some truly memorable moments between characters, particularly Bill the Butcher and a corrupt politician named Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who sees each immigrant coming off the boat as a potential vote to be bought. Scorsese also constructs a truly memorable climax during the Draft Riots of 1863, in which thousands of men and women took to the streets looting and burning in response to the forced draft for the Civil War. This is the second of two violent battle sequences that bookend the film, the first one being a gory street fight between Bill’s Nativists and the “Dead Rabbits,” the Irish immigrant gang led by Amsterdam’s father. Unfortunately, Scorsese gets off on the wrong foot right away, editing and scoring this gang battle like a bad music video, complete with an electric guitar wailing on the soundtrack and all manner of hyperbolized editing techniques that draw attention to themselves, rather than heightening the intensity of the violence. The choreography of truly disturbing violence has always been one of Scorsese’s strengths, but here he seems to give in to the dominant trends of modern cinema even though they are detrimental to the emotional impact of the scene.
But, as badly as that opening scene plays out and as lethargic as the majority of the narrative is, Gangs of New York is not a Heaven’s Gate-style misfire. Unfortunately, had it been, it might have been more entertaining. As it stands now, it is a watchable, but slightly disappointing endeavor, a dream project that, despite millions of dollars and many years of effort, never quite came to fruition.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick