Gangs of New York

December, 2002, Drama

Gangs Of New York

Five years ago, a mainstream director by the name of James Cameron brought out an overlong, over-budget holiday blockbuster in the midst of wide-spread gossip that the movie's difficulties during production were certain to make it a Christmas turkey. The whispers were dead wrong; while Cameron's "Titanic" turned out to be a bloated soap opera, it was also a shrewd piece of cinematic showmanship, winning the box-office sweepstakes and making its creator, at least temporarily, the king of moviedom. It also catapulted its young male lead, Leonardo Di Caprio, into mega-stardom. For some time now it has been well known that the highly respected and critically acclaimed director Martin Scorsese has yearned to crown the considerable accomplishments of his early award winning films with a big commercial success. So it should come as no surprise that he teamed with Di Caprio in an effort to make Christmas lightening strike twice.

Here's one of the most talked about pictures of the year, an eagerly anticipated offering from a grandmaster of American movie-making. It features an impressive cast, (Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo Di Caprio, Cameron Diaz) lavish production elements and a budget so extravagant it would make a Wall Street banker blush. It also has a theme worthy of all that grandiosity; the story of New York City's growing pains in the midst of the Civil War, when immigrant gangs, Tammany Hall politics, racial hatred and the country's first draft culminated in a deadly riot which gripped the city for four violent days in 1863, leaving hundreds dead and thousands homeless in its aftermath. The director intended a sweeping epic, boldly told. What we got is an overly long, ambitious mess.

Scorsese and his trio of screenwriters have given us two films; (1) a love/hate/revenge triangle featuring the three principals, and (2) a panoramic examination of the social conditions present in mid-19th century New York City. The fictional confrontation between Day-Lewis and Di Caprio is a hopelessly lopsided one, dominated as it is by the mesmerizing villainy of Day-Lewis, who, as Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, towers over everyone and everything else in the film. As the head of a gang of thugs in lower Manhattan, he's king of a slum called Five Points. Proud of his native heritage and the father who died in the war of 1812, he loathes the Irish immigrants who are flooding into the city and kills their leader, (Liam Neeson) in the first in a series of vicious, bloody street battles that dominate the film. Neeson's young son Amsterdam, (played by a curiously detached Di Caprio) is spared in this blood bath; he's then exiled to a juvenile home upstate for a decade and a half before returning, unrecognized, to extract vengeance for his father's death.

Amsterdam's pursuit of his father's killer provides Scorsese the opportunity to present his version of the city's social structure during this chaotic time in its history, the movie's second theme. But these sociological observations, (economic inequality, dehumanizing poverty, governmental corruption, etc.) are delivered with such brief, offhand directorial strokes that the audience experiences them as merely perfunctory attempts to enliven the Day-Lewis/Di Caprio duel with a vitality that never comes to life. Historical figures like Boss Tweed and Horace Greeley, (whose real motivations might have furnished some depth to the events depicted) exist here only to help propel the confrontation between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam to its ultimate conclusion-- but not before we're treated to a 165 minute running time filled with Day-Lewis' gleeful butchery and Di Caprio's dithering vendetta.  This fictional turf war dominates the film's foreground, while the ominous developments that triggered the actual riot remain anemically consigned to the background. As a result, the movie's gory climax borders on the ludicrous; both protagonists and their rival gangs get blown to bits by a naval bombardment from a warship supporting the civil authorities who are suppressing the historical riot that's going on elsewhere in the city. By that point, Day-Lewis, Di Caprio and their crews have become irrelevant, collateral damage long after we've given up caring about them.

Scorsese's best films have never shied away from the reality of human violence; whether it's gang-related, ("Mean Streets", "Goodfellas", "Casino") or individualized, ("Raging Bull", "Cape Fear") his often inarticulate characters' behaviors always exude a credibility that legitimizes their brutality. But the characters in "Gangs", who need to be larger than life to balance the director's epic ambitions, remain largely unconvincing, which makes their violence simply offensive. Worse still, it's the only thing that fills the screen; while the director is surely accurate in his belief that the birth of our most important city was more bare-knuckled than kid-gloved, there isn't a single character in this film--nor a single incident--which isn't riddled with corruption, violence or upper class condescension. Scorsese has the right, as the movie's creator, to present his jaded view of the city's past; but it's so blatently lop-sided his audience also has the right to reject it. Sadly, the director's reach exceeds his grasp; as the movie's events lurch forward, you grow impatient with Di Caprio's Hamlet-like indecision, annoyed with Diaz's predictable nurturing and disgusted with Day-Lewis' atavistic sadism. 

Scorsese typically brings a gritty realism to his movies, but that's missing here too; in the gangster trilogy mentioned above, he presents the mileu of his stories in settings both realistic and accessible. You believe his characters because they physically inhabit recognizable places. But "Gangs" fairly screams "fabrication" in sets that are too perfectly composed and dialogue that lurches from ponderous speeches to History Channel narration to contemporary slang.  Even if we hadn't tracked the endless shooting of this film in the gigantic studios once used by Fellini in Rome, we'd know we aren't experiencing anything other than contrived display; the slum housing is too perfectly rundown, the interiors too precisely decadent, the costumes too painstakingly slovenly. When Di Caprio takes a puff of opium in a Chinese after-hours drug den, you just know the pipe came right out of a museum collection. What emerges isn't the director's trademark naturalism, but an overstuffed, mannered production which only serves to accentuate the artificiality of his characters.

Editing and continuity take a beating here too; when Di Caprio and his boyhood friend Henry Thomas first meet Day-Lewis in a dimly lit bar, they wear disheveled clothes and dirty faces; yet on returning to the street after that encounter, they're well scrubbed and freshly dressed. Di Caprio's subsequent branding by Bill the Butcher at the end of a particularly brutal fight should result in facial scaring; yet it curiously appears and disappears as the movie progresses. 

Daniel Day-Lewis compellingly provides an oddly-principled arch villain, but Di Caprio's Amsterdam is as doggedly self-conscious here as this over-rated young star was in Titanic, and while his voice-overs may be necessary to provide some badly needed narrative exposition, they only heighten the impression that the film's ambitions remain painfully unsatisfied.

David Hemmings, Jim Broadbent and John C. Reilly, splendid actors all, function here as caricatures under Scorsese's muddled direction: is it really possible this production was as out of control as the press core suggested? After two and a half plus hours of this ersatz history lesson, you'll have little doubt making up your own mind. Here's a sad reminder that talent, money and great ideas don't necessarily add up to something you should spend your hard-earned money to endure. 

The verdict? This holiday, stay away.    



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