Review: Gangs of New York

by Jake Sproul

Rating: (out of )

In the relatively short time since I began writing film reviews, I have yet to see an epic in the true sense of the word. That has all changed, as Gangs of New York is a period epic like none other I have ever seen in all the years I have been alive. The visual landscape of Gangs of New York is breathe taking, just gazing upon the sets that were created to host this film are enough to inspire a person. Yet the story behind Gangs of New York can never seem to over come unoriginality to join its scenery at the top of the cinematic pedestal, and as interesting as it seems, Gangs of New York features this year’s best performance, AND this year’s worst!

As its been widely publicized, Martin Scorsese wanted to make Gangs of New York in the 70’s, and even took out a two page add in Variety proclaiming it as his next project in June, 1977. Yet after the financial failures of several high profile epics, Scorsese couldn’t find a production company to finance the film. So Gangs of New York was put on hold. Fast forward to late 1999, and Gangs of New York, now a Miramax Films movie is set to begin casting, and shooting very shortly. Yet problems quickly arise, and it has taken the movie 3 years to hit the theaters, a year after it was intended to debut. What has arrived at theaters is certainly interesting as it offers some of the best of the year, as well as some of the worst.

Gangs of New York begins in 1846 in the ghetto like community of 5 Points in New York. A bitter rivalry has been building up between two gangs, the Dead Rabbits (Irish), and the ‘Native Americans’ (British/Dutch). During this opening 15 minutes, we see the Natives win the battle, and their leader, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) slaughters Priest Vallon, leader of the Dead Rabbits (Liam Neeson). Vallon’s son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), just a young boy at the time, vows revenge against Bill. Gangs of New York then jets forward to 1863, and Amsterdam is being released for the orphanage he has been in since his father’s death. (As anyone who has taken an American History course knows, 1863 was a very poltically charged year, as it was the peak of the Civil War. This war manages to reach even the Five Points emotionally, and this provides for a very interesting backdrop, and even participating factor in the film.) When he returns to the Five Points, what he sees is almost surreal, Bill is the unofficial mayor of Five Points, and has everyone in his pocket, including all the former Dead Rabbits. Amsterdam makes quick work on making inroads to Bill, and Bill takes Amsterdam on to be his associate, and as a surrogate son.

I usually comment on the performances at the end of my review, but considering that the film’s largest pro and largest con reside within the acting, I thought it pertinent to comment on it now. Daniel Day-Lewis is simply marvelous as Bill “The Butcher” Cutting. This was a very meaty role, and Daniel chewed all that meat off right to the bone. It is his character which pushes this movie and makes is truly watchable, and its he who single handedly manages to steer Gangs of New York out of all the plot holes. Yet Leonardo DiCaprio is difficult to swallow as Amsterdam. He never blends into the Irish accent, his scruffy hair may be ok for Hollywood, but it makes him look like a dweeb in the harsh setting of Five Points. And he is supposed to be a character plagued with emotion, and yet Amsterdam comes across cold, two dimensional, and transparent. Not deep and interesting like Bill. The other major player in the film is Jenny Everdeane, played by Cameron Diaz. She is a one time “Friday night girl” of Bill, and a pickpocket. Jenny is said by most to be the most beautiful girl in the Five Points, and of course, she finds herself falling for Amsterdam and him for her. Cameron Diaz provides balance between the obscenely good performance by Daniel Day-Lewis, and the strikingly bad performance from Leo DiCaprio, as neither shines nor prohibits any portion of the film.

It is never a good sign when the movie gives more screen time to the movie’s antagonist. (Anyone remember the original Batman?). And that is exactly what happens in Gangs of New York. By the time the anticlimactic ending (I will not go into why its anticlimactic as it would ruin the ending) roles around, we like Bill better than our supposed “hero” Amsterdam, which makes the moment very awkward for the audience, as no one wants to find them self rooting for the bad guy. In order to give Bill more screen time (which he does deserve), its likely that a lot of Amsterdam's emotional wracking was left of the cutting (no pun intended) room floor. A very poor decision, as we lose a lot of the emotional factor of Gangs of New York. This is how Gangs should have played out: Amsterdam wants to hate Bill, yet he cannot as he slowly begins to think of Bill as a father and Bill begins to think of Amsterdam as a son. Of course this could have been in the script, but swallowed up by DiCaprio’s horrendous zombie-like performance.

Gangs of New York is entertaining, as its one of the most grand epics to graces screens in years, yet script-wise, the film is a blood soaked mess. The movie has a conventional plot, and the emotions that needed to be played out to make this movie great weren't due to a combination of Leonardo DiCaprio’s poor acting and lack of input from the writer and his script. While it was unintentional, or a very intentional, last minute life-saving maneuver by Scorsese and the editing team who knew that Leo‘s performance wasn‘t going to cut it (again, no pun intended) as the main anchor of the movie, it was wise to give Day-Lewis and Bill “The Butcher” Cutting the most screen time, as he is the most captivating aspect of the film. Day-Lewis is mesmerizing, and turns a villain into a deep character who deserves a movie all his own. Gangs of New York should be happy with two stars, as its only two redeemable qualities are the grand sets, and the performance of one man (albiet, the best performance of the year). While not worth $7.00, Gangs of New York is certainly worth a viewing whether at a second run theater or on DVD, so that you may see the spectacle that is the art and set direction and the role of a lifetime for Daniel Day-Lewis. ..and for anyone interested in loudly making fun of Leonardo DiCaprio.

© 2003 Jacob Sproul

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