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Posts Tagged ‘Gangs of New York’

From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 16th 2003: 

Hello again everyone, and let excitement be unrestrained, let joy be unconfined, because after a slightly shaky start 2003 hits its stride with a long-anticipated epic from one of the screen’s most accomplished, yet elusive artists. Yes, that’s right, Cameron Diaz has finally made another movie!

Well, perhaps not. The movie in question is Gangs of New York and while Diaz undoubtedly plays a key role, most people will be slightly more interested in the contributions from director Martin Scorsese (who arguably hasn’t been on top form since 1993’s The Age of Innocence), Leonardo DiCaprio (absent from our screens since 2000’s The Beach – not, as you might think, out of shame, but mainly because Gangs was so long in production), and Daniel Day-Lewis (who supposedly retired from acting five years ago to become a cobbler before being tempted back for this role).

Gangs of New York is set during the birth of modern America, in the mid-nineteenth century. In a terrific opening sequence, savage combat is fought in the streets of New York between rival gangs, one made up of descendants of the original European Protestant settlers, the other of more recent Irish Catholic immigrants (Scorsese doesn’t need to stress the parallels with Ulster or other religious conflicts, nor does he). The Irish are defeated and their leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson, obviously in a cameo role) is killed. His young son is sent to an orphanage upstate, from which he emerges sixteen years later vowing revenge on the man who murdered his father – a psychopathic crime lord known as the Butcher…

From here on it’s a slightly routine revenge-drama with a few gangster-movie staples thrown in for good measure, but it’s made extraordinary by its setting – this is a period of history that seems never to have been portrayed before (or maybe the film just makes it feel that way). New York is depicted as lawless, terminally venal, and locked in a permanent state of chaos – even the rival fire brigades engage in pitched battles on the street in order to claim the ascendancy. The city is split from top to bottom, along lines of ethnicity, religion, and wealth. The richness, vibrancy, and detail of the movie is remarkable.

The screenplay recognises that America’s greatest strength, its diversity, is also its greatest weakness. The film occurs before the great Polish and Italian immigrations and strips this theme down to its barest form – that of the English and Dutch set against the Irish. (Ironically, the original settlers refer to themselves as ‘Native’ Americans.) The film’s final message on this theme is (perhaps deliberately) a little unclear – the final conflict is never really consummated but at least it avoids cheap flagwaving and sentiment, instead choosing the slightly more ominous suggestion that while the past may be forgotten, it never loses its influence over the present.

Scorsese’s flair and deftness with the camera is as masterful as ever and the editing is also frequently superb. The gang battles which bookend the film are tremendous, as is the depiction of the Draft Riots the latter one coincides with (an event which until less than eighteen months ago remained the single largest loss of civilian life in American history). Elsewhere the film is less accomplished, but it’s never less than very watchable.

This is largely due to a towering, bravura performance from Day-Lewis as Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting. Looking like a bizarre hybrid of Will Self and the Mad Hatter, he swaggers through the movie, effortlessly acting everyone else off the screen. Cutting is one of the more complex characters to appear in a major release in recent years, but Day-Lewis nails the part, managing to be grotesque, funny, and chilling simultaneously. He dominates the film, even to the point of eclipsing Jim Broadbent (who appears as a crooked politician). Broadbent is only one of an outstanding supporting cast, including John C Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, and Henry Thomas (clearly sticking to a ‘one big movie every twenty years’ regimen). Those wondering what David Hemmings and John Sessions have been up to recently will find their questions answered too.

But what of Leonardo? And, come to think of it, Cameron Diaz? Well, I hate to say it, but if this movie has a weak point performance-wise it’s in the leading couple. Diaz’s part isn’t as meaty as DiCaprio or Day-Lewis’s but she does the best she can, although she’s saddled with a ginger wig that makes her look dismayingly like Heather Graham. Both she and Leo deploy Oirish accents direct from County Leprechaun. Furthermore, Leonardo just never feels right as a street-hardened gang leader out for brutal revenge. Whatever the numbers this film does, this isn’t the acting showcase he probably intended it to be.

There are a few other problems with Gangs of New York. The plot does feel a little rushed in the final third of the film, probably due to vigorous use of the editing suite at the behest of producer Harvey Weinstein. Like DiCaprio’s last big hit (you know, the one with the boat in it) it falls into the usual Hollywood trap where the residents of the British Isles are concerned, sentimentality regarding the sons of Ireland (Irish good! British bad! shrieks the subtext, accompanied as usual by penny-whistle tootlings on the soundtrack). And I know I’m not the only one who’s startled by Leo’s ability to recover from having his face head-butted to a pulp before being branded with a hot knife (this probably isn’t a film to take elderly relatives to see) with barely a scar to be seen.

The good outweighs the bad. This isn’t the all-conquering masterpiece some people have claimed it is, but it is a vaultingly ambitious, highly intelligent, and exceedingly well-made film. Martin Scorsese’s contribution alone would be worth the price of a ticket, as would Daniel Day-Lewis’s. Together they ensure that movie standards for the year to come have been set high early on. The gauntlet is thrown down.

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