of New York
Martin Scorsese, USA, 2002
Posted: December 25,
The drama surrounding the making of Gangs of New York could have
easily overshadowed the final product. After all, director Martin
Scorsese's three-decade quest to adapt Herbert Asbury's 1928 book to the
screen -- not to mention the storied behind-the-scenes meddling of Miramax
studio overlord Harvey Weinstein -- is the stuff of great copy. So it's a
testament to Scorsese that his epic tale of warring nativist Anglos and
immigrant Irish gangs set around the 1863 New York City Draft Riots wins out
in the end. That Scorsese's vision triumphs despite a disjointed
narrative, sub-par love story and uneven performances -- sustaining its
intimate human element while strongly making its larger point regarding
American cities as melting pot crucibles that ultimately forged the
country's identity -- is more remarkable still. This is the same turf the
director's been exploring his entire career, the world of Mean Streets
and Taxi Driver -- life at street level, where the strong are
swiftly separated from the weak and the price to make a better way for
oneself is often paid for in blood.
Gangs stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon, an
Irish-American whose father was killed sixteen years earlier by William
Cutting -- a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) -- in a street fight
between old-guard Anglo gangs and the Irish Dead Rabbits. After being
released from an orphanage, young Amsterdam returns to the slums of his
childhood seeking revenge against the Butcher, who has consolidated his
power over the years to become the most imposing crime boss in lower
Five Points. Eschewing his last name to avoid suspicion, Amsterdam falls
in with Bill's outfit and is quickly taken under the ruthless Butcher's
wing. Complicating Amsterdam's revenge plans is his involvement with Jenny
Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a fetching pickpocket who is also close to Bill.
Scorsese takes this stock love triangle/revenge tale and makes it seem
fresh and yet archetypal at the same time. This is due in part to the
powerful dynamic between Amsterdam and Bill: Amsterdam wants to kill the
Butcher, but in doing so risks destroying his own identity. Bill took
Amsterdam's father from him (the mother is never mentioned), robbed him of
his childhood and, ultimately, becomes a surrogate father. In one poignant
and telling scene, Amsterdam saves Bill from an assassin's bullet, only to
weep over the consequences of this action, underlining the conflict
between avenging his father's death and losing his new father figure.
DiCaprio's at his best before Amsterdam attempts to murder Bill --
angry yet vulnerable, eager to prove himself yet filled with self-doubt.
Once he turns against the Butcher, setting in motion the inevitable
showdown, DiCaprio proves less effective, unable to establish Amsterdam as
a convincing rival to the brutal Cutting; one would be hard pressed to put
money down on the waifish Amsterdam against the wily gangleader. A
flawless Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, manages to impart his truly
despicable character with a real sense of honor, loyalty and regret,
without once sacrificing Bill's edge. There's little doubt that the
Butcher could kill anyone who crosses him in the blink of an eye.
Diaz, meanwhile, does a decent job with Jenny, though scenes such as
one where she compares scars with DiCaprio undermine attempts at revealing
deeper shading to her character, coming across instead as artificial and
forced. Renee Russo and Mel Gibson did a much better job with the same
shtick in Lethal Weapon 3, the gag being sexier and more
appropriate to the subject matter at hand.
Of course, such scenes aren't Diaz's fault. Three talented writers
worked on the long-gestating Gangs screenplay -- Jay Cocks (The
Age of Innocence), Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) and
Steven Zaillian (Black Hawk Down,
Schindler's List) -- and it shows, from the machinations of Tammany
Hall's William "Boss" Tweed (an excellent Jim Broadbent), who sought votes
by any means necessary, to the Irish immigrants forcibly conscripted into
the Union Army fresh off the boat.
It's Scorsese's deft handling of these various threads that ultimately
saves Gangs from failure; his climax fulfills the film's grander
ambitions, wonderfully meshing the showdown between Amsterdam and the
Butcher with the violent riots, and then concluding the tale with a
poignant image of the city transforming and prospering over the years.
Gangs the film, like its parent book about a city dealing with growing
pains and multi-ethnic-and-racial integration, is messy, chaotic and overpowering. Part of
that chaos stems from the obvious concessions Scorsese seems to have made
regarding the film's scope and flow; hopefully a DVD release will either
reveal the director's definitive cut, or include deleted scenes that add
substance to the already rich and varied tapestry.
Credit is due to the director's technical team as well: Michael
Ballhaus's camerawork is appropriately grand without losing the human face
of the film, while the score by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings)
nicely emphasizes the film's violent world without upstaging the action.
Kudos should also be given to all involved in making the sets built at
Cinecitta in Rome a perfect
stand-in for the New York of the 1840s-60s, fully realized in all of its
Gangs of New York, then, is a near-miss masterpiece. Despite
structural and character flaws, it capably avoids capsizing under the
bloated weight of its enormous ambitions, transcending its narrow
historical timeframe to speak to a 21st-century America still wrestling
with complex and volatile issues of race, ethnicity and poverty.
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