Gangs of New York Review
You’d be forgiven for assuming Martin Scorsese’s latest epic Gangs Of New York would fit smoothly into an area designated solely for giant flops, such as Lynch’s Dune and Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. The film’s had an infamous build-up to its release. Scorsese’s quarrels with Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein are already legendary, and the rumours of the film’s original cut lasting five or so hours, with many screenwriters brought in without credit, suggesting that any trimmed cinema version would resemble a dramatic mess.
Thankfully, Gangs Of New York, in its one hundred and sixty-eight minute released incarnation, is a mostly watchable piece of entertainment that sparks enough interest throughout its long running time. Sadly, the film is no classic, and certainly does not deserve to grant Scorsese that ever-elusive Oscar.
The film starts off worryingly enough, with many recognisable acting faces revealed without any introduction, which is always a hint of massive post-production editing to force the duration down. However, it isn’t long before many of the characters’ personalities are revealed to a reasonable extent, and we gather who the heroes and villains of the piece are going to eventually turn out to be. The plot essentially situates on mid-nineteenth century New York gang wars between the natives and the immigrants, and one young man’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) quest for vengeance amongst the local bully Bill The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). For such a simple dramatic quest, Scorsese broadens his canvas to a gargantuan length, attempting to take in too much political and social statement of New York within that period, which explains the unnecessarily lengthy running time. Cameron Diaz provides the love interest for DiCaprio, and whilst her appearance might convince some fence-sitters that the film is worth watching, her character is nothing more than a token of romance, and adds absolutely nothing ultimately to the quest. She could have been cut altogether and the film would not have suffered.
Whilst certainly enjoyable, Gangs Of New York is let down by its unrealised potential. This could easily have been the Scorsese picture to beat them all, and yet he fails to inject enough trademark punches into the proceedings to suggest he was fully in control of the picture. Production values are high, if over-reliant on CGI backdrops, and the musical soundtrack – a postmodern mishmash containing good contributions ranging from U2, Peter Gabriel and Howard Shore, lift the film to an occasional thrilling level.
Performances are generally average, with DiCaprio never exerting himself as Amsterdam the lead protagonist. Cameron Diaz has a small level of chemistry with DiCaprio, and strong supporting performances can be felt from Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly and Liam Neeson. Anyone who wonders where they’ve seen Amsterdam’s pal Johnny before might be surprised that he was played by Henry Thomas (young Elliot in E.T.).
Easily the standout factor in Gangs Of New York is Daniel Day-Lewis’ startling performance as William 'Bill the Butcher' Cutting. In essence, Day-Lewis out-De Niro’s De Niro, and on occasions it’s very easy to forget that it isn’t De Niro you are seeing on screen. Day-Lewis provides menace, charisma and a volatile persona so effortlessly that the Best Actor Oscar could be his for the second time. Maybe it will coax him out of his strange semi-retirement. He elevates the film from a mostly mediocre level, and each sequence is electric when he is on screen.
Gangs Of New York is long, bloated and yet still enjoyable as long as expectations are not high. It’s not the Scorsese classic some are hoping for, and if anything it suggests that the great director has yet to regain his Midas touch for over ten years now.