Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 47 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Intense Strong Violence, Sexuality/Nudity and Language
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian & Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, John C. Reilly & Stephen Graham
Martin Scorsese is one of my favorite directors. That’s part of the reason this film comes off as underwhelming. There are makings of a great movie in GANGS OF NEW YORK, but things eventually disappoint in a last hour that feels totally separated from the solid first two acts. Nominated for 10 Academy Awards in the year of release (including Best Picture, Director and Actor), GANGS seems like it was tampered with a lot in its production stages from (mostly likely) the studio and (least likely) the screenwriters. Though there are fantastic qualities about it, GANGS OF NEW YORK is a slight disappointment when you consider it’s from Scorsese.
The film begins in 1846, a bloody battle between the Natives (born New Yorkers) and the Dead Rabbits (an Irish Immigrant gang) takes place in the snow-covered Five Points of Manhattan. This bout of hand-to-hand combat leaves the Natives victorious and a priest bleeding to death on the ground. The priest’s son witnesses the whole affair and vows revenge on his father’s killer, a greasy maniac called Bill the Butcher. 16 years pass and the priest’s son has grown up into a young man named Amsterdam. Returning to New York from an orphanage, Amsterdam gets in deep with Bill’s gang and enacts a slow revenge. However, Bill is clever and remains highly dangerous. Amsterdam’s plot gets more complicated as things go along as New York’s political background is changing, inciting many outraged citizens.
Leonardo DiCaprio worked his way from the pretty boy in TITANIC to a phenomenal actor in THE DEPARTED. GANGS OF NEW YORK was taking place when he was going through this transformation. He’s solid enough in the role, but his character is a blank slate. Cameron Diaz plays his love interest in the form of a thieving Irishwoman and her accent is a bit appalling. Besides being unable to pull off her would-be accent, she just seems miscast. Other familiar faces pop up in Jim Broadbent as the actual historical figure Boss Tweed, Liam Neeson is Amsterdam’s father, and Brendan Gleeson shows up for a few quick scenes. Another good character is John C. Reilly as a dirty cop who takes bribes from Bill’s Natives. Speaking of which, if there’s one reason to watch GANGS OF NEW YORK, it would be Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. He demolishes every other performer as the best villain to ever grace a Scorsese film. Day-Lewis also shows an emotional side to his character and doesn’t make him a total monster, but remains a frightening bad guy regardless.
GANGS OF NEW YORK also has tons of atmosphere. Cinematography is slick and the sets are fantastic. It feels like you’re watching a piece of history unfold in front of your eyes. Some of the political corruption, set around the main story, did actually happen. Thus adding an interesting layer onto the film for history buffs who might be intrigued to check out more information on New York Draft Riots. Scenes between DiCaprio and Day-Lewis are fantastic, especially one discussion that packs a powerhouse of emotion for both of their characters. The violence itself is unflinching and arguably bloodier than Scorsese’s other work. GOODFELLAS and CASINO may have spurts of gun fire and beatings, but they didn’t have a central villain talented in the art of meat-carving as a side job. You can see where that might lend to the violence.
The film works phenomenally as a simple revenge story until a certain point. Politics and historical context floods its way into the almost Shakespearean tale of revenge and derails the ending entirely. Certain choices seem odd, given everything seen in characters up to that point. The final conflict is disappointing in how rushed it is. Things almost come off as more of an obligation than an actual conclusion. One might argue that the ending of GANGS OF NEW YORK wastes the viewer’s time invested in the two hours before that decline.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is just okay. It seems like a lot of potential faded by the shrug-inducing ending. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is the sole reason that you might want to check this film out. He’s amazing as Bill the Butcher! Everything else ranges from great to disappointing. Leo was good in his role, but the character is a blank slate. He’s a guy who wants revenge and loves Cameron Diaz (with a bad Irish accent), but I can’t describe a discernable trait that makes him a good character. The atmosphere and sets are impressive, but this is one of Martin Scorsese’s lesser efforts. Slightly recommended, if you want to see Daniel Day-Lewis scare the hell out of you as an awesome villain.