Gangs of New York is epic. The words “sweeping” and “spectacle” probably ought to be used too. Its sheer size and ambition earn it a recommendation and possibly an Oscar or two for the art department. There is room for criticism on the densely-packed screen, but not a lot.
A Tale of Revenge
R for violence, nudity, drugs
Movie Habit's DVD review of Gangs of New York
The film is set in a young New York City divided along many lines by gangs. Protestants fight Catholics, natives fight newcomers, political rivalries spill into the streets. Even competing fire brigades fight for the right to extinguish burning buildings.
As the film opens (in 1846), there is some honor in these fights. William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) formally declares war on Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) by the ancient traditions of their forefathers. Cutting’s native-born, Protestant army of thugs trades brutal blows with Vallon’s Irish immigrants. In the end, Bill kills Priest, and the battle is stopped to honor the dead.
Flash forward 16 years. The four-year-old boy who witnessed his father’s death has grown into Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio). He has returned to New York to get revenge. In fact, the movie could be reduced to just that — a tale of revenge. Amsterdam bides his time — for an hour and a half of screen time — until the day he can pick up his father’s banner against Bill Cutting.
The big revenge scene does come, but it is contrivedly interrupted by the draft riots of 1863. The climactic gang fight doesn’t get to happen because of a larger fight, and thus the film ends.
The New Yorkers
Bill “the Butcher” is quite a colorful character. Since killing Priest, he has become the most powerful man in Five Points, a feudal lord overseeing his fiefdom. He believes he killed the last honorable man 16 years ago. These days, he says, the only thing his adversaries understand is fear, so his subjects lives under a reign of terror. Bill’s hobby is butchery, so he is often giving cuts of meat to favored peasants and sycophants. He’s also the physical arm of the Tammany Hall body politic, a “benevolent” lodge corrupted under William Marcy Tweed (Jim Broadbent).
By comparison, Amsterdam isn’t nearly as interesting. He narrates and watches, but he doesn’t actually do much until the end. He does, however, manage to fall in love with Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a high-ranking pickpocket in The Butcher’s organization. Inappropriately, it is jealousy over Jenny, and not anger over his father, that sparks Amsterdam to action.
There are also a host of secondary characters, each fairly well rounded. Broadbent is featured prominently as Boss Tweed, as are Brendan Gleeson and John C. Reilly as two of Priest’s loyal followers.
Actors and Stars
Daniel Day-Lewis hasn’t worked since1997’s The Boxer, in which he shone. He won the Best Actor Oscar for My Left Foot, and was nominated for In the Name of the Father a year after teaming with Scorsese in The Age of Innocence. Day-Lewis brings The Butcher to life. He adopts the dialect and mannerisms of the mid-1800s as if he were born with them. His smelly, plegmy presence feels right for the time. He is confident, brash, and bordering on violence, earning his street cred every day. Day-Lewis deserves consideration for a third Oscar nomination.
Di Caprio has been called a lot of things. He is a pretty boy. A teen heartthrob. One critic said he’s not “man enough” for the role of a revenge-seeking upstart. Another dismisses Di Caprio as unable to hold an accent. Although his performance is neither as demanding nor as impressive Day-Lewis’, he turns in a fine performance. I wonder if his critics aren’t distracted by his baggage from Titanic.
Cameron Diaz too has baggage, only hers is harder for this critic to overlook. Diaz has appeared in so many bubblegum roles — from Charlie’s Angels to There’s Something About Mary, and even a humiliating uncredited cameo in Slackers — that it’s hard to take her seriously. Her superstar combination of blond hair, blue eyes, and 21st century physique are almost the only anachronism in Gangs of New York.
Living, Breathing, Bleeding
The real star of the movie is production designer Dante Ferretti, working under Scorsese’s careful eye. Together, they bring this Dickensian paean to NYC to life. Their obsessive attention to detail — particularly costumes, sets, and props — sums up most of the design, but not all of it. Day-Lewis’ accent, for example, sounds a little like modern New York dialects, but not quite. And the dialogue adds to the vibrant authenticity of Gangs of New York. Add these pieces together and the sum is something amazing: a living, breathing, bleeding portrait of old New York, as colorful and violent as the old west.
With six Oscar nominations under his belt, two on Scorsese pictures (Kundun and The Age of Innocence), Ferretti finally deserves to win.
That’s two Oscar-worthy feats in Gangs of New York, which is more than enough to make up for a thin story and the baggage of an actor or two.