Gangs of New York (2002) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for intense strong violence, sexuality, nudity, and language
Running Time: 166 min.
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent
Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Logerman
Review published June 17, 2003
Although Scorsese's (Casino, The Age of Innocence) epic is full of symbolism and artistic flourishes which give the overall production an artificial feel, I suspect his vision of the America of yesteryear is perhaps a more accurate representation of the lost souls that forged the backbone of our nation than the patriotic, sugar-coated past that we hear about in grade school.
Scorsese's New York is inhabited by a controlled anarchy, with rival gangs dominating the streets, as well as owning the politicians and police which are supposed to preserve the order. Like DiCaprio's earlier epic, Titanic, this is a lavishly produced historical picture which incorporates a fiction amid a very real setting, and although Gangs of New York is clearly a well-crafted film on almost every level, the main storyline is too slight for which to draw an epic film around, further dwarfed by the more interesting underlying commentaries about the corruptness of the politics, draft, Civil War, and system of immigration of the times.
The film starts off in the middle of the 19th Century, where a young boy named Amsterdam witnesses his father's death at the hands of Bill "the Butcher" (Day-Lewis, The Boxer), the meanest of the gang leaders of the times. The young boy is whisked away to exile, but years later, a grown man, Amsterdam (DiCaprio, The Beach) is back to seek out revenge in a New York borough under the iron thumb of Bill. Bill's gangs firmly believes that they are Native New Yorkers, and despise the incorporation of different races and immigrating peoples to their province. Amsterdam manages to work his way into Bill's gang, eventually becoming a sort of right-hand-man, but always keeping the memory of his father clearly in mind to fuel his fury.
Gangs of New York is an impressive period piece, with gorgeous costume work, gargantuan and highly detailed sets, and sumptuous music that perfectly recreates the look and feel of the times. Inhabiting this, the hundreds of extras which were employed makes this a large and sweeping endeavor, a true labor of love by all involved. The cast is equally as formidable, with terrific performances by almost all of the members involved. It's been a while since Scorsese has been in the forefront of directors, but Gangs should easily put his name right back in the pantheon when listing the great talents working today.
However, as technically brilliant as the film may be, the main storyline never really takes hold of you, eventually buried under layer upon layer of more grandiose events, all of which foster more interest and less exploration than is befitting of the subject matter. DiCaprio is fine, but his character is rather bland and soulless, and his performance is consumed by the much more enigmatically powerful one that Daniel Day-Lewis delivers. The same can be said for Cameron Diaz (Shrek) as Jenny Everdeane, the hooker with a heart for Amsterdam. She is painted to be sympathetic, yet we never truly feel anything for her because she seems so insignificant an entity among the colorful array of characters around her.
Eventually, there is a resolution to the struggle between Amsterdam and Bill, but even that feels unsatisfying, lost amid a bigger war with bigger fish, hearkening a phrase from Casablanca, "The problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
Despite the flaws, Gangs of New York is such a lavish affair, and is recommended for the wonderful elements, which earned quite a bevy of Academy Award nominations. Although Scorsese's work as a whole doesn't add up to the greatness which warrants the scope of such a production, the sum of its parts is still very substantial indeed.
©2003 Vince Leo