Mark Reviews Movies


3 Ĺ Stars (out of 4)

Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Boradbent, Henry Thomas, John C. Reily, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson

MPAA Rating: R (for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language)

Running Time: 2:48

Release Date: 12/20/02

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Review by Mark Dujsik

Martin Scorseseís Gangs of New York is quite possibly the most ambitious Hollywood film Iíve seen this year. Itís an epic about gang wars in mid-1800s New York City which features only two major battles, and one of them is interrupted before the fighting can actually begin. The main arc of its narrative relies on a commonplace revenge tale that Scorsese pays very little attention to and puts very little care in. Heís going for something less obvious. Scorsese and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan build their world from the ground up. And what a world it is. The entire thing seems surreal, but to the best of my small knowledge, itís steeped in reality. Political corruption, massive groups of immigrants arriving daily, a war raging in the South, racial, religious, and socioeconomic tension building, gangs controlling the city, and a madman leading it all. Itís a melting pot ready to boil over. This is the world of 1860s New York brought to startling realization.

It is 1846, and Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) leads a gang of Irish Catholic immigrants called the Dead Rabbits. They have challenged a gang of Natives, led by William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), to a fight over control of Five Points, an area of much illegal activity in the city. In the battle, Bill kills Vallon while his son watches. Sixteen years later, that boy, now grown up and called Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), has exited reform school and returned to Five Points. There he meets up with Johnny (Henry Thomas), another boy from the time who tried to help him escape. Bill controls the Five Points on practically all levels now and is moving up with his support of Tweed (Jim Broadbent), a major political player. Since the town is indebted to Bill in some form of another, itís only a matter of time before Amsterdam meets his nemesis in the flesh and learns that many of his fatherís old comrades in arms are now working for him. Revenge is at the top of Amsterdamís priorities, and so he slowly begins to work for Bill and get close to him.

The central narrative arc of the story is the revenge tale, and Amsterdamís attempts to get close enough to Bill to kill him. This story is as old as drama, and it hits the familiar points. To get close enough to Bill, Amsterdam must get involved in the dealings of the Natives. Of course, he starts to climb in the ranks, meaning he begins to fall under Billís good graces and to have more responsibility and loyalty to his enemy. Thereís even Amsterdamís dilemma of deciding which is more important: to honor his natural father or to honor his surrogate father. Then thereís a love interest, in this case Jenny, a pickpocket played by Cameron Diaz, who has a past relationship with Bill and who causes an unspoken rift between Amsterdam and Johnny. Weíve seen this all before, and thereís very little that makes us care for it. The story we havenít seen is whatís going on in the background. We come to appreciate the intricacies of the inner-workings of this world. Folklore and history intertwine to form an admittedly exaggerated but wholly understandable and fascinating. For two hours, Scorsese fleshes out the backdrop and hits the main points of the revenge tale. Then the tone shifts, the climax builds, and the final half hour is incredibly powerful; we realize how important the extended setup is.

Gangs of New York is a labor of love spanning over two decades for Scorsese from conception to its release. The complexity of its secondary story and world display the conviction to the film as do the technical components that bring it to life. A massive set in Rome substitutes for New York, but with production design by Dante Ferretti, youíd never know the difference. This is an incredible actualization of the world at hand. Michael Ballhausí cinematography is drab and sweeping. The first shot of New York sets the tone. Someone kicks open the door to the Dead Rabbitsí hideout, and the camera moves into it, showing the snowy landscape of Old Time New York. The shot is held long enough for us to soak it in, and then, thereís an even longer delay before the Natives arrive, giving us even more time. Then the first battle commences. At first, itís romanticized. Thereís no blood, no grotesque images; people simply fall when they die. Then, as the battle becomes more brutal and blood begins to soak into the snow, Ballhaus gets closer, and the look becomes grittieróreality has set in.

There are two sorts of characters and performances here: the kind that fulfill the requirements of the basic story and the kind that flesh out this culture. Leonardo DiCaprio falls completely into the first category. Heís a charming and entirely gloomy hero. At one point, he admits to never reading or hearing of Shakespeare, which is odd since most of his actions (and lack thereof) and general disposition bring to mind the Bardís melancholy Dane. Cameron Diaz is a typical love interest with a past and an inconsistent Irish brogue. The background characters are all generally good, Jim Broadbent being a standout. Performance-wise, though, the film belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis. His Bill the Butcher is one of the best screen villains in years, but heís much more than just a villain. He represents a part of this world. Day-Lewis goes all out and hits the exaggerated level of the social commentary while making it utterly convincing at the same timeómuch like the film itself. It is truly a great performance.

Iím slightly disappointed that Gangs of New York has a weakness as serious and inescapable as the thrust of its main story, but the rest of the film is overwhelming. When the film reaches and stretches its narrative boundaries and epic ambitious, itís about as powerful and awe-inspiring a film as has graced the screen this year, and this makes the flaws much, much easier to endure and overlook.

Copyright © 2002 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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