Gangs of New York

Reviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 01/18/03 02:49:04

"To quote The Strokes: Is This It?"
3 stars (Average)

This is what Scorcese's 25 year long burning ambition has been? The film he simply had to make before even contemplating anything else? This is the once-in-a-lifetime masterpiece from possibly the greatest ever director? It's not bad, it's handsome, brutal and occassionally great. But we do not expect 'occassionally great' from Scorcese. We don't want 'pretty good'. We want more.

'Gangs of New York' has been on Scorcese's backburner for 25 years now. Telling the story of rival gangs beating merry hell out of each other in the 19th Century, it focuses on Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his mission to avenge his fathers death (Liam Neeson) at the hands of Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).

After leaving the Five Points district for 16 years to be taught, Amsterdam returns to find Bill in total control of the district. The local Governor (Jim Broadbent) is in the palm of his hand, all the gangs work for him including Amsterdam's old childhood friend Johnny (Henry Thomas), pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz) and the local police, led by Jack (John C Reilly).

Amsterdam eventually comes under the wing of Bill and begins to find his loyalties divided, while the spectre of Civil War looms ever closer to New York.

With 25 years of planning behind it you would expect nothing less than perfection with a lifetimes care and attention behind it. But 'Gangs' feels horribly sloppy for a lot of its time. It's as if Scorcese was so desperate to get the damn thing made, he just made it any way he could, without paying attention to what he really wanted to say.

Take the character of Jenny. It reeks of a director compromising his vision to enable his film to be made, by letting a totally superflous love angle to sneak in. Any of Diaz's scenes could be cut and the film wouldn't be harmed. She only serves to give a half-hearted attempt at portraying a love triangle between her, Amsterdam and Vallon. But half-hearted it is. There's no dramatic tension or conflict about this situation. It just lies there inert hoping it will satisfy the 16 year old girls who've sneaked in.

This lack of focus is prevalent throughout. Who or what is the story about? Is it about vengeance and redemption? Is it about a simple conflict between two men? If so, Scorcese seems to want to make an awful lot of points about the infiltration of the Irish into America, the liberation of the blacks and the fact that the rich could buy their way out of conscription.

But again these are only half-hearted attempts at a historical context. If you asked me what the social and political situation was in New York I wouldn't have a clue, because we're not informed.

Everything feels too rushed or ill thought out. There's very little dynamics in Scorcese's direction. Apart from an outstanding opening shot revealing the size of the gangs, there's little that shouts out 'Scorcese'. If this was made by say, Brett Ratner for example, then it would be lauded as the first steps onto greatness, if a little muddled. But it isn't, it's the man behind 'Goodfellas', 'Raging Bull' and 'Taxi Driver' and as such it feels flat.

It's all very pretty and nice to look at, but it's too nice. There's absolutely no sense of the age these people lived in and no atmosphere or flavour of the period. Scorcese could do a lot worse then watching 'City of God' and seeing how a real slum condition is captured.
It feels like it would work better as TV miniseries rather than trying to squeeze in a love story, a hate story, and the entire social and political issues of the day into just under three hours.

If Scorcese isn't sure whose story he wants to tell (and you suspect he did know what story he wanted to tell, but was hamstrung by the studio. There's surely a four hour Directors Cut crying out for release here), then the audience is all at sea trying to cotton on to some sort of structure. This isn't helped by some bad stylistic choices. It doesn't play like the gritty, bloody historical epic it should, it's like a 19th century 'Goodfellas' full of flash. But it doesn't work. The voiceover, so effective in 'Goodfellas' is utterly redundant here, the opening battle scene, while bloody, is undercut by U2's theme song kicking in inappropriately and the script is litterd with cliches (the mortally injured character asking his best friend to end his pain quickly for example). And CGI elephants?!

Thinking about all the above points would make it seem like this is a one-star dud all the way. But it isn't. The production is lavish enough, but what really elevates it a couple of notches is some superlative acting. DiCaprio is good in his role, but looks too often like he's confused as to whether he's portraying a romantic lead or a man of action. I've mentioned that Diaz could have all her scenes cut, but that's ok because she isn't convincing whatsoever, but it's Day-Lewis that almost single-handedly drags the film along at times.

In a performance that would seem to be rubber-stamped with 'Oscar' already, he's the only truly memorable thing in 'Gangs of New York'. Over-the-top, but also terrifyingly convincing as a man prepared to do any act of brutality to keep America for the Americans, he steals the film with the same swagger that Bill rules the Five Points. It's a shame that the rest of the film doesn't come anywhere near to matching his performance.

The other characters don't get a look in, which is a shame because there's some interesting backstory to tell. There's former members of Amsterdam's gang, who have either scurried into the shadows or now work for Bill. But a brief look-in is all they get. Again, this suggest that there's a lot of deleted scenes that Scorcese is hopefully storing up.

So three stars is what 'Gangs of New York' gets. Three stars for Scorcese's dream project. The sense of dissapointment and the 'so what?' that course through the film give hints at an unsatisfied director with a studio breathing hard down his neck. Day-Lewis is terrific and the only aspect to truthfully champion about 'Gangs of New York'. Martin Scorcese deserves a hatful of Oscars for his lifetimes work, but if he wins one for this it'll be as much a cheat to him as to other more deserving recipitants.

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