Gangs of New York (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released December 20, 2002:

Watching Martin Scorsese’s long-in-the-making Gangs of New York is like watching a 12-round bout between two weary and staggering prize fighters. You witness the onslaught of blows, see the momentum change several times, and in the end can’t really tell which fighter is victorious. This is the experience of watching Gangs of New York, and the two fighters are called “Ambitions” and “Flaws.”

The film begins in the Five Points district of 1840s New York among a vivid gang war over turf. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) witnesses the slaying of his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), at the blade of William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his “Native” Americans gang. So what does this son of a dead preacher-man do? Well he grows up, plots revenge by making a name under the wing of the Butcher becoming like a surrogate son. But will vengeance consume him?

Watch Leo DiCaprio assemble toughs, rake heels, and ne’er do wells to his Irish gang of rapscallions with facial hair that looks to be tweezed! Witness a one-dimensional Leo suck the life out of the film like a black hole! See Leo become the least frightening gangster since Fredo. Watch the horribly miscast Cameron Diaz play pin-the-tail-on-an-accent! Witness as she tries to play a pickpocket with a heart of gold that falls hopelessly and illogically in love with Leo! Marvel how someone looking like Diaz would exist in a mangy slum! See the brilliant Daniel Day-Lewis upstage our stupid hero and steal every scene he inhabits! Witness one of the greatest villains in the last decade of movies! Watch Day-Lewis almost single-handedly compensate for the film’s flaws with his virtuoso performance! Admire his stove-top hat and handlebar mustache!

Witness a wonderful supporting cast including John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleeson! Wish that they had more screen time to work with! Wonder to yourself why in all good graces this film took nearly two years of delays to get out! Speculate away!

Gangs has the sharp aroma of a film heavily interfered with by its producers. The whole exercise feels like Scorsese being compromised. Gangs is a meticulous recreation of 1860s New York that often evokes an epic sense of awe. The story has more resonance when it flashes to small yet tasty historical asides, like the dueling fire houses and the Draft Riots. But all of these interesting tidbits get pushed aside for our pedantic revenge storyline with Leo front and center. You know the producers wanted a more commercial storyline, which probably explains why Diaz has anything to do with this.

The script is credited to longtime Scorsese collaborator Jay Cocks, Steven Zallian (Academy Award winner for Schindler’’s List) and Kenneth Lonergan (Academy award nominee for You Can Count on Me). So with all these writing credentials, don’t you think one of them would realize all of the dumb things going on with the story? The ending is also very anticlimactic and ham-fisted. Just watch as we segue from a graveyard to present day New York, all thanks to the Irish rockers of U2!

I know this much, Day-Lewis needs to stop cobbling shoes and act more often. Gangs is his first visit to the big screen since 1997’’s The Boxer. He spent part of this hiatus in Italy actually making shoes. I don’’t know about everyone else but this man has too much talent to only be acting once every five years. Somebody buy his shoes and get him a script, post haste!

Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is at times sprawling with entertainment in its historic vision and at other times is infuriating, always dragging behind it a ball and chain called “stupid revenge story/love story.” I’’m sure the film will get plenty of awards and Oscar nods in prominent categories, and this seems like the Academy’’s familiar plan: ignore a brilliant artist for the majority of their career and then finally reward them late for one of their lesser films. So here’’s hoping Scorsese wins the Oscar he deserved for Raging Bull and Goodfellas.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS

It is rare to find a movie that is almost exact in its percentage of good aspects and poor aspects. This 50/50 balance is best exemplified by 2002’s Gangs of New York. The ten-time Oscar nominated movie (and zero-time winner) was intended to be director Martin Scorsese’s epic, and twenty years later it’s still his biggest movie in size. Scorsese waited twenty years to tell this sprawling story of New York City’s early criminal underworld, so at 160 unwieldy minutes it’s no surprise how overstuffed and unfocused the finished product ended up. It’s a movie with so many engrossing historical anecdotes, amazing texture and supporting actors, and a stunning return to upper-tier acting by Daniel Day-Lewis, and yet it is hampered by Leonardo DiCaprio’s lackluster storylines, both for vengeance and for love (maybe a love of vengeance?). It’s so bizarre to watch this movie because there can be sequences where the movie just excels, and then there are sequences where I just want to sigh deeply. It’s like the movie is in conflict with itself, and you, the viewer, are ultimately the frustrated victim.

Let’s focus on the good first. Day-Lewis had essentially retired from acting and went to work in Italy as a cobbler until Scorsese appealed to him to reconsider acting. Every second this man is onscreen deserves your utmost attention. DiCaprio was the advertised star of the movie but Day-Lewis was the real star. The movie is almost a Trojan horse of sorts, luring you in with a standard revenge plot line only for you to lose all interest and root for the charismatic villain. Day-Lewis is so enthralling, so commanding as Bill the Butcher that every moment he is absent feels like an eternity. He remained in character for the duration of the shoot, spooking waitresses, and learned how to throw knives from circus performers and how to cut meat from an actual butcher. Considering the man’s famous Method-acting approach, I wonder just how many skills Day-Lewis has acquired over decades. This man could be the living embodiment of Michelle Yeoh’s character in Everything Everywhere All at Once, able to, at a moment’s notice, tap into a uniquely honed skill-set upon need. I wish that itself was a movie; Day-Lewis filming a role when terrorists invade the set, and now he has to utilize every lesson and skill of his past acting roles to defeat the baddies and save the day. He may be the most interesting man in the world. Since Gangs, Day-Lewis has only appeared in five other movies, and amazingly he has been nominated for Best Actor three times, winning twice (that averages an Oscar every 2.5 movie roles). This man has become like an acting Halley’s Comet, waiting for him to swing around again and burn brightly and then, just as suddenly, pass back into the lengthy waiting period.

I loved the historical asides in this movie. I loved the scene showing, in one unbroken take, Irish immigrants stepping off the boat into New York harbor and getting immediately signed into service, given a rifle and uniform, and lined up to board another boat to fight the Confederacy. I loved the entire character of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and how transparently corrupt he is, reminding me of Claude Rains in Casablanca. I loved him competing with the dozens of other firefighting units squabbling over turf while a house burned down to cinders. I loved him scrambling for some entertainment for the masses, and he asks Bill to gather up four nobodies that they can publicly hang, and then we cut right to these relatively innocent men saying their last words before being hanged, including one man’s young son watching. It’s an incredible sequence. The culmination of the 1863 Draft Riots is terrific and maximizes the messy nature of the movie best, communicating the many breaking points that lead to this notorious riot. The opening of this movie is wonderful and a terrific mood setter as we watch the members of the Dead Rabbits assemble for battle, with the rattling percussive score by Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings), finally breaking outdoors and watching gangs advance like armies. I loved the narrated history of the different gangs settled in New York and their peculiarities and fixations. I loved the before and after stories of Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), who settled as a corrupt police officer, and Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a mercenary who tries to go straight through, of all things, politics. I loved that the movie reminds us that just because these people reside in the North doesn’t stop them from being racist (an archbishop is especially aghast at a black man being allowed in his church). I loved the occasional P.T. Barnum appearance. I loved the proliferation of so many tall hats amidst all the handlebar mustache-twirling villainy. I loved when the movie felt like a living documentary, soaking up the richness of the recreated history.

Where the movie sputters is with just about all that involves DiCaprio’s character, Amsterdam. The revenge storyline is just so boring compared to everything else going on, enough so that I think even the movie forgets about it. Amsterdam becomes Bill’s budding protege and literally saves his life at several points (if your goal is for him to die, why save the man?). He’s such a boring character because all he thinks about is vengeance, so every relationship he builds is only about how much closer to achieving his goal he can be. Amsterdam is a thoroughly dull character, and DiCaprio doesn’t come across as a credible tough guy yet, especially diminished in the large shadow from Day-Lewis’s Butcher. It wasn’t until 2006’s The Departed where I felt like he shed his boyishness fully to play a credible adult man. DiCaprio has been great with Scorsese, and this movie was the start of a decade of collaborations (four movies, two Oscar nominations), but he feels miscast here as a brooding hero given inordinate attention.

Worse is the romance with a pick-pocket prostitute played by Cameron Diaz. I pity Diaz. She’s been given the spunky love interest role in the Oscar-bait movie, which is generally underwritten and only viewed as aiding the hero’s journey of our male lead or being the offramp not taken (“Don’ get y’er refenge, Amsti’dam, ‘stead come wit me to San Fran in Calyfer’nia”). This is not a good character and she’s meant to give voice to the female underclass perspective, so it’s even more irksome when her headstrong, defiant nature gets sublimated as a rote romantic option. Diaz is also woefully miscast and my 2002 quip of her playing “pin-the-tail-on-the-accent” is accurate. I might argue that maybe dramas aren’t her strong suit, but she was great in Being John Malkovich and In Her Shoes and The Holiday, though all of those had notable comedy elements. She has the ability but this might just have been too unfamiliar for her, and so she struggles throughout with a character defined by her sexual connections to the villain and the hero.

While these characters and the performances are the biggest misses in Gangs of New York, there are other misguided or poor elements adding to that 50/50 margin. The opening sequence is great until the actual gang warfare begins and you realize that Scorsese, arguably the greatest living American director, cannot direct action to save his life. The action is choppy and lacking any of the kinetic qualities we associate with most Scorsese movies. Not even the talents of editor Thelma Schoonmaker can help save this deficit. The movie’s overall scattershot nature also makes it rather uneven and difficult to build momentum. The ending plays out like a footnote to the Draft Riots and robs the viewer of whatever catharsis could be granted from the long vengeance plot. If the whole movie has been leading up to Amsterdam’s vengeance, well robbing him of it could be meaningful, if the self-destructive nature of vengeance had been a theme. It’s not like Amsterdam has suffered at all, beyond the occasional stab wound or black eye, so him learning a lesson about the futility of vengeance would seem inappropriate and trite. I also want it known for posterity that there is an un-credited actor listed online as playing “Hot Corn Girl.”

Twenty years later, Gangs of New York is still a frustrating and sometimes exhilarating viewing. It began a road for Scorsese that led to him finally winning his first, and still only, Oscar for directing The Departed. The sprawling nature of the movie is both a blessing and a hindrance. It allows for a wider scope and cast of characters but it also means that if you’re liking a subplot or a supporting character, you’ll have to wait your turn before they re-emerge. My old review back in 2002 perfectly sums up the majority of my feelings in 2022. There’s much to see and much to like with Gangs of New York but also too much to restrain its potential greatness.

Re-View Grade: C+

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About natezoebl

One man. Many movies. I am a cinephile (which spell-check suggests should really be "epinephine"). I was told that a passion for movies was in his blood since I was conceived at a movie convention. While scientifically questionable, I do remember a childhood where I would wake up Saturday mornings, bounce on my parents' bed, and watch Siskel and Ebert's syndicated TV show. That doesn't seem normal. At age 17, I began writing movie reviews and have been unable to stop ever since. I was the co-founder and chief editor at PictureShowPundits.com (2007-2014) and now write freelance. I have over 1400 written film reviews to my name and counting. I am also a proud member of the Central Ohio Film Critics Association (COFCA) since 2012. In my (dwindling) free time, I like to write uncontrollably. I wrote a theatrical genre mash-up adaptation titled "Our Town... Attacked by Zombies" that was staged at my alma mater, Capital University in the fall of 2010 with minimal causalities and zero lawsuits. I have also written or co-written sixteen screenplays and pilots, with one of those scripts reviewed on industry blog Script Shadow. Thanks to the positive exposure, I am now also dipping my toes into the very industry I've been obsessed over since I was yea-high to whatever people are yea-high to in comparisons.

Posted on December 26, 2022, in 2002 Movies, Review Re-View and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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