Gangs of New York
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent
Director:

Martin Scorsese

Writing credits: Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan
Distributor: Miramax * 164 min
Rated: R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language
  (USA 2002)

Uh oh.

Here we go again.

Another one. Decades from concept to completion. Years in the actual filming. Millions of dollars over budget. A delayed release. And it stars Leonardo DiCaprio.

Haven't we been here before?

Not since TITANIC has a film hit the screen with the amount of baggage with which Martin Scorsese's long-anticipated and much-delayed GANGS OF NEW YORK is laden. Like TITANIC, the anticipation has been tempered with fears about whether the delays are merely Scorsese showing the same kind of compulsive detail he brought to the screen in THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, or if this is the second coming of WATERWORLD that TITANIC wasn't? I'm happy to report that GANGS OF NEW YORK is, if not Scorsese at the top of his game, still mighty darn fine Scorsese, and that's enough for me.

Inspired by Herbert Asbury's 1927 book about the 1863 New York draft riots, GANGS OF NEW YORK is at its core a coming-of-age story of a son who becomes a man only by seeking to avenge his father's. Set in the Five Points section of lower Manhattan in the mid-19th century, the plot centers on the young and preposterously-named Amsterdam (DiCaprio), who witnessed the murder of his father, "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson) at the hand of Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in a fight between nativist gangs and the Irish Dead Rabbits gang. Returning from a state orphanage years later, he vows to avenge his father's death, only to become an errand-boy for Bill, who seems to own, or at the very least run, everything in lower Manhattan, much to the chagrin of New York City mayor William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Along the way, he falls for Cameron Diaz as a professional pickpocket who is also under Bill’s "protection, is befriended by and betrayed by a childhood friend (a skeevey Henry Thomas, who is rapidly becoming the Crispin Glover of his generation), and finally Grows Up.

Scorsese's film, despite its many delays and hiccups along the way, is astoundingly timely. 2002 has been a year in which All Things Dickensian are fashionable again, from Michel Faber's neo-Dickensian novel THE CRIMSON PETAL AND THE WHITE to Douglas McGrath's upcoming remake of NICHOLAS NICKELBY. In this Dickensian perspective, the rich are corrupt and evil, while the poor -- even the thieves and prostitutes -- are noble in trying to survive as best they can. Like Faber's novel, GANGS OF NEW YORK seems to have been rendered in smell-o-vision. From the smell of stale beer fed through hoses like a hookah to the odor of fresh meat being cut to the horse manure on the streets to the truck spraying an anti-plague disinfectant, the production's design gives you a "You Are There" feeling.

The Holy Trinity of the neo-Dickensian universe is mud, bodily fluids, and filth. In Scorsese's rendering, a ragtag but noble Irish immigrant army emerges from what looks like, and could be, the very bowels of Hell itself. The streets are perpetually muddy, clothes are perpetually filthy, and men are always fighting -- the police fight the gangs, firemen from rival firehouses fight each other while tenements burn. It's a testosterone-crazed world in which the only women are either soon-to-be-widows whose husbands are sentenced to hang as an "example" merely because the fights are getting out of control; or prostitutes (yes, even lesbian prostitutes, because the shot of two nude women who are obviously sex partners seems to be the nineteenth century equivalent of the Obligatory Strip Club Scene). In his natty blood-red velvet waistcoat and garish plaid pants, Bill the Butcher is clearly identifiable as what passes here for a king, because (to quote MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL) "'e 'asn't got shit all over 'im."

So much of our written history deals with politics and war, and while the highly fictionalized GANGS OF NEW YORK touches on both, it also reflects Scorsese's meticulous attention to period detail -- to such a degree that one film can't hold it all. From men betting on how many rats a terrier can kill in a fixed period of time to an odd enthusiasm for all things Chinese, to the kind of vicious anti-black bigotry that conventional Civil War history conveniently leaves out when discussing the North, to the way Tammany Hall presaged 2000 Florida in its philosophy of voting ("Remember the first rule of politics: The voters don't make the results, the counters make the results."), there are tantalizing tastes of what life must have been like at the time. Yet in its handling of the draft riots themselves (which play in a series of scenes explained with subtitles, as if Miramax told Scorsese to just get on with it already), the film seems oddly timely. A voice over a scene which shows newly-arrived immigrant men already shipping out to fight the Civil War as the coffins of those already fallen are unloaded admonishes, just as the Vietnam protesters did and the current antiwar movement does today, "Let the sons of the rich go and die; let the sons of the poor stay home."

A film with this much going on requires a strong cast to propel it, and in his two leads, Scorsese continues to elicit the most out of his actors. The obvious draw here is DiCaprio, who had done some fine work before a 46,000 ton boat nearly capsized his career. Gone is the androgynous feline face of Jack Dawson, replaced by the pugnacious, bulked-up countenance of a bulldog. DiCaprio now resembles variously, depending on how he's photographed, either the son of William C Reilly (who appears as a gang member turned corrupt cop) or Benicio Del Toro's cuter younger brother. Released from the chains of being "Leo Exclamation Point", and working with the director he's idolized since childhood, DiCaprio seems to have again found the actor inside the movie star. This should be his triumphant return to the world of acting craft, except that his Hamlet-inspired character isn't given enough nobility to be sympathetic. Amsterdam is a con man, a liar, and a thief; for all that his vengeful motivations are time-tested. He never really engages our sympathy or support.

In the absence of making him heroic, the key to making this character work is to focus on the ambivalent complexity of the father-son relationship he develops with Bill Cutting. Clearly there's a certain glory in being the boss' protege, but because the story takes so long to set up, this important aspect of the relationship seems to be short-changed. It doesn't help either that Daniel Day Lewis' ferocious Bill the Butcher is without a doubt the foulest and most compelling villain to hit the screen since Joe Pantoliano’s Ralphie Cifaretto. Chomping hard on the scenery while dolled up like Snidely Whiplash, and sporting the oddest Noo Yawk accent since Chris Eccleston's Crown Heights Hasid in A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES, this character ought to be laughable, and the performance ought to be the kind that is written up as a gross career miscalculation. But Lewis inhabits this monster so completely that after a few minutes, it seems as if the accent is a deliberate attempt to find some kind of vocalization that differs from the "Hibernian hordes" he quite vocally and emphatically loathes.

Backing up the two leads is Cameron Diaz as Jenny Everdeane (the Thomas Hardy reference undoubtedly intentional), Amsterdam's utterly gratuitous love interest. Diaz is reasonably competent in the role (although despite DiCaprio's finally-maturing face, she still looks considerably older than he), except that this entire subplot seems somehow pasted into the movie, as if Scorsese were trying to avoid being criticized for not giving the women anything to do but lounge in the pubs, bare-breasted, draped over the men. Diaz' character seems so much better scrubbed than anyone else on screen, with such pearly-white teeth, that she seems to have dropped to go slumming from a Merchant-Ivory picture.

The cast is rounded out by a group of great character actors. Jim Broadbent, who is rapidly attaining the status of Cinematic God (if he ever does a film with Philip Seymour Hoffman and Brian Cox, I may just die of joy), is an affable yet unctuous Boss Tweed. Brendan Gleeson is magnetic and ferocious as Monk, a thug-turned businessman who becomes sheriff. Gary Lewis, last seen as Jamie Bell's father in BILLY ELLIOT, is coiled and scary as one of Bill the Butcher's Irish-born henchmen.

Like all of Scorsese's work, GANGS OF NEW YORK is passionate, energetic, and impeccably crafted, with a final sequence that packs a probably unintended emotional wallop. It is a very good film that should have been a great one. Perhaps being too emotionally involved over too long a time with a particular project has made him try too hard. In a season without THE TWO TOWERS looming over the epic film beat, even merely very good Scorsese would be enough to make this film a contender. The problem is that great Scorsese on a smaller scale is far more epic than very good Scorsese on a large one.

- Jill Cozzi

 

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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