Review: Gangs of New York

A tale set in New York in the 19th century where there is much gang warfare (or turf war) particularly between the Nativists and the immigrants. Leading the Nativists is Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a brutal man, as his moniker suggests. Liam Neeson plays Priest Vallon, the Irish leader of the ‘Dead Rabbits’, who we see in the opening scene heading off to war against Bill and his Nativists. They are fighting for control of Manhattan’s Five Points area. After much clubbing, axing, knifing, and bloodshed, Bill’s Nativists win the war and the turf, leaving the young Amsterdam Vallon without a father, but a desire for revenge. Years later and Bill is now ruling the streets through brutality and intimidation, and Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), a coward who was once a member of the ‘Dead Rabbits’ (which no longer exist, thanks to Bill), is now a corrupt copper. Amsterdam Vallon (now played by Leonardo DiCaprio) comes back after spending much time away, and is looking to finally exact his revenge on his father’s killer, having watched it happen before his young eyes. To do this he plots to worm his way into Bill’s inner circle, and even gets some assistance from Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), who is the only person in town to have recognised Amsterdam. Bill starts to take a sort of liking to Amsterdam, and the closer the two become, the more Amsterdam’s gut churns. Meanwhile, the draft riots loom in the background for much of the film, before eventually spilling over. Cameron Diaz plays a pretty redheaded pickpocket whom Amsterdam is smitten with, and who has her own connection to Bill. Brendan Gleeson is Monk, a former member of the ‘Dead Rabbits’, who now watches all the goings on around town somewhat ambiguously. Jim Broadbent is corrupt and opportunistic politician William ‘Boss’ Tweed, who is in cahoots with Bill the Butcher.

Although not quite on the level of his “Goodfellas”, this 2002 Martin Scorsese (“Mean Streets”, “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull”, “Bringing Out the Dead”, “Hugo”) film is a persuasive epic that provides a sort-of historical context for later gangster flicks. Set in the 1860s, it mixtures myth with fact in an entertaining and vivid way, only let down by an underwhelming romantic subplot and the bizarre sound of Leonardo DiCaprio narrating the film with an American accent whilst in the film he struggles to maintain an Irish one. What the hell? DiCaprio is OK as Amsterdam, but I think I’d like him better as an actor if I could ignore most of his output between 1996-00. His best work has been done before (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape”, “This Boy’s Life”) and since (“The Aviator”, “Blood Diamond”, and “Inception”) that period. However, I did find the dilemma his character was in to be a lot more effective and interesting than in “The Departed”. It’s seemingly more personal, and although not a great performance, Leo’s face barely seems to suppress rage.

DiCaprio (OK as he is) and Cameron Diaz, are the weak links in an otherwise top-drawer cast which includes colourful turns by Brendan Gleeson (wonderfully elusive and ambiguous), Liam Neeson (genuinely commanding), John C. Reilly (with a terrific Irish accent and surprisingly mean), and Jim Broadbent (spot-on as the opportunistic Tweed). All are excellent, but Oscar-nominated Daniel Day-Lewis towers over all in a truly bravura, show-stopping performance. Almost all of the characters here are vivid, but Day-Lewis makes Bill the Butcher into one of cinema’s standout characters, and certainly one of the greatest of all villains. Day-Lewis seems like such a shy, polite and humble person in real-life, but like any great actor he completely conceals that to give us a genuinely intimidating, yet complex villain. Bill the Butcher is almost frightening enough to turn me vegetarian! And check out his bow-legged walk and glass eye. Priceless. It’s a flamboyant performance without seeming cartoony, and Day-Lewis is quite simply one of the greatest deliverers of dialogue in cinematic history. He commands attention with every single utterance. Greatest living actor? You certainly wouldn’t be laughed at for such a suggestion. I also want to make special mention of Henry Thomas, who in addition to a fine Irish accent, gives a better performance than DiCaprio in a much lesser role.

As I said, the film is certainly flawed. I think it would work just fine without the romantic element (it’s not essential to the plot), and I don’t think DiCaprio and Diaz are a good fit together. Seeing DiCaprio dance with yet another redhead was not necessary and shameless pandering from a director who should know better. Big fan of “Titanic”, Mr. Scorsese? I also think the film gives a seriously half-arsed reason for Bill to find out Amsterdam’s secret. For an otherwise smart film, this seemed to cheap and easy (Romantic jealousy? And half-baked at that?). Meanwhile, as much as I get what Scorsese is doing in the final shot, I think he makes the point effectively enough for the 2 ½ hours beforehand. We get it, this film is the historical background that shows America was forged in blood and crime. There’s certainly something wonderfully amusing about seeing all these ‘respectable’ gentlemen clubbing the holy fuck out of each other whilst wearing top hats and the like.

Obviously this historical subject meant a lot to Scorsese (he’d been trying to make it for about twenty or so years!), even if he takes a few liberties with the facts in the name of entertainment. In fact, it plays like a blend of history and “The Count of Monte Cristo” at times, and anyone who cries foul at the liberties taken needs to take a look at the eagle on Bill’s glass eye, and then shut the hell up. This ain’t a history lesson, folks. Scripted by Jay Cocks (“Strange Days”, Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence”) and Steven Zaillian (Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”, the dry sports flick “Moneyball”), and Kenneth Lonergan (“Analyse This”, “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle”, director of “Manchester By the Sea”), it’s a bloody good yarn with some truly vivid characters and performances. The film is also wonderfully shot by Scorsese regular Michael Ballhaus (“After Hours”, “Goodfellas”, “The Age of Innocence”) and features splendiferous production design by Dante Ferretti (The infamous “Salo”, Scorsese’s “The Age of Innocence”, “Casino”, “Kundun”, and “Bringing Out the Dead”), that simply has to be seen to be believed, especially given it was shot at an Italian studio! It certainly convinced me, but a lot of people seemed to find it a bit artificial. At any rate, the film is full of atmosphere and tension, but especially in that opening scene, largely thanks to these two aforementioned people. It’s no “Goodfellas” but it’s one of the director’s best films since “Goodfellas” at least, and deserved to get some love from the Academy. What gives?

Rating: B


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