Gangs of New York

A Film Review By Michael Haley

Rating:R for very strong violence and images, language and nudity. 
Starring: Daniel Day Lewis, Jim Broadbent, Henry Thomas, Cameron Diaz and Leonardo DiCaprio. 
Directed By:Martin Scorsese 

Final Grade: 

Martin Scorsese, despite being considered one of the greatest if not the greatest director working in America today, made only one truly great film in my opinion…one of the all time greats Goodfellas. To be fair, The Last Temptation of Christ and Casino were pretty good, but I’m not a big fan of some of his other work, including the vastly overrated Taxi Driver. However, I was still quite pumped to watch this epic saga, even if it does star media darling/rotten child Leonardo DiCaprio whom I’m supposed to hate just because he’s prettier than I am. Did it live up to expectations? Not quite, but I still like it anyway.

Leo stars as Liam Neeson’s boy Amsterdam, who vows to avenge the death of his father at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Lewis) for control of New York City’s Five Points. The Five Points is the most dangerous section of New York at that moment in history, where the Anglo/Saxon “natives” are constantly fighting the landing Irish for control. Meanwhile, he starts having a fling with a local pickpocket played by Cameron Diaz, and we observe corruption at nearly all levels of the New York hierarchy.

For some reason, I cannot get motivated to think about this film in very clear or even worthwhile terms. It certainly is a good movie, although it’s not a great one…there are numerous set pieces that are wonderful but Scorsese has a difficult time shaping together these pieces into a comprehensive whole. The opening scene is terrific, as we see a bare white snowfield, later replaced with rival gangs, and by the time the scene is over the white field has now been splattered with red, showing that the city was indeed built upon a foundation of blood. The metaphors and symbols are striking throughout the film, and they come both blatant and subtly. The production design is rich, and the accomplishment of recreating this world without the use of computers is an Oscar-worthy accomplishment of its own, Star Wars be damned (even though I liked Episode Two, I must give Scorsese credit where it’s due).

Also, I was really impressed by two specific performances in the film: Cameron Diaz as Jenny the pickpocket and Daniel Day Lewis as Bill the Butcher. Diaz proved to me once again after last year’s Vanilla Sky that she is an incredibly tremendous actress who is wasting herself away on dreck such as Charlie’s Angels or to a lesser extent, The Sweetest Thing. I liked every scene she was in, and her character brought a wonderful balance to the picture that didn’t detract from the necessary roughness of the rest of the cast. Daniel Day Lewis is also superb, in a role that is also Oscar worthy. He owns every scene he’s in, and belittles poor Leo due to the fact that Lewis is that good.

As I said though, Scorsese doesn’t really find a way to bring the beautiful threads together into a complete fabric. The first two thirds of the film have sequences that build and then let go to pursue another story, that provide little to add to the film overall. At times the narrative of the film seems to ramble on and on, and then focus its voice at irrelevant moments. That being said, the last third comes together (for its own section) beautifully, as the entire city of New York becomes a key player to the ongoing fight and no longer is a background. I liked how Scorsese shows all the fights and riots occurring throughout the city, and than brings us to Five Points, giving us the feeling that this brawl is pathetic and meaningless in the larger scope of things. New York is not between the Irish and Anglo-Saxons, but anyone who comes off the boat.

I know for sure I need to see this film once more to do it justice, as its long running time (170 minutes) and operatic sweep left me with a lot of information to digest in one viewing. It’s not perfect or even among Scorsese’s best pictures, but is a worthy choice to go watch this Holiday season. Anyone who’s remotely interested in a history of New York (albeit a revised one) or just a fan of cinema will more than find something to appeal to him here. 

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