movie film review | chris tookey

Gangs Of New York

Miramax Films. Photo by Mario Tursi - all rights reserved
  Gangs Of New York Review
Tookey's Rating
8 /10
Average Rating
6.87 /10
Amsterdam Vallon: Leonardo DiCaprio , Bill the Butcher: Daniel Day-Lewis , Jenny Everdeane: Cameron Diaz
Full Cast >

Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan

Released: 2001
Genre: DRAMA
Origin: US
Colour: C
Length: 165

Scorsese has always had a love-hate relationship with the criminals he grew up alongside in New York. This film offers him the chance to show that the first gangs there were not Italian, but Irish.
Reviewed by Chris Tookey

Bookmark and Share

This sprawling, brutal, highly controversial epic has flaws by the bloody bucketload, but it's also a must-see. One of the world's great film directors is back on his best form since GoodFellas .

The opening sequence alone would be worth the price of admission - a masterpiece of fluid camerawork, culminating in a gang battle of mediaeval ferocity, and a lyrical shot of a gruesomely blood-spattered, serenely snowy square, looking like something the Flemish master Breughel might have painted after a very bad dream.

One of the New York gangs in the mid-nineteenth century was the "Dead Rabbits", led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), a warlike Irish Catholic priest who clearly missed that bit in the Bible about turning the other cheek.

Within ten minutes of the film starting, he and most of his immigrant followers have been hacked to death by men under the one-eyed, single-minded William Cutter (Daniel Day-Lewis), alias Bill the Butcher, who - though a descendant of the Irish himself - was born in America and has a fiercely territorial hatred of "foreign invaders".

Priest Vallon's eight year-old son watches Bill fillet his father and vows vengeance. 16 years later, in the 1860s, the boy has grown up into Leonardo DiCaprio. Leo falls among thieves including Henry Thomas as an over-age Artful Dodger, and takes time off to date an improbably modern-looking pickpocket (Cameron Diaz). in what appears to be one of Bonnie Langford's cast-off wigs.

Eventually, Leo schmoozes his way into Bill's inner circle. Will Leo fall under the spell of Bill's crooked charisma, or will he gain Hamlet-style vengeance?

If you can stand the sight of blood - gallon upon gallon of it - the film is exquisitely photographed by Michael Ballhaus, designed by Dante Ferretti and costumed by Sandy Powell.

Like most melodramas pitched at the emotional level of Grand Opera, it has its ludicrous aspects. In pursuit of the big visual effect, Scorsese allows plausibility to fly out of the window. So keen is he to ram home his religious symbolism and show the public crucifixion of a bent cop (John C. Reilly) that he does not pause to consider how the cop's slightly-framed killer, DiCaprio, could ever have hoisted him into position without anyone noticing.

And the need to cut the film down to two hours 45 minutes means that processes which must have taken weeks or months - such as Leo's recruitment of an army to combat Bill, now take place with ridiculous ease.

Few subsidiary characters have time to make an impact, except Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed, an avaricious local politician and world-class hypocrite. "The appearance of the law must be upheld," he opines pompously, before adding with a greedy twinkle "especially when it is being broken".

The picture's biggest weakness is that, although DiCaprio and Diaz manage to generate some sexual electricity, you can't really believe in them as 19th century characters. And even when DiCaprio has been mutilated by Bill, concessions to his female fans mean that he continues to look extraordinarily handsome.

The most obvious reason to see the film is Daniel Day-Lewis. Roaring with brutal bigotry and vile vitality, Bill Cutter is a flesh-and-blood-cleaving character who zooms straight to the top of the list of all-time-great cinematic villains.

Whether butchering a pig in order to demonstrate how to kill a man or sitting in a state of despondent self-pity, draped in the American flag, Day-Lewis makes the other characters look like cardboard cut-outs. Not since Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham outclassed Kevin Costner as Robin Hood has a supporting actor so flamboyantly stolen a big Hollywood movie.

Day-Lewis may appear a comically melodramatic villain, with his stovepipe hat, plaid trousers, curling moustachios and an untrustworthiness around sharp implements that would have had Sweeney Todd running for cover.

But this is no camp caricature. Day-Lewis gives us a minutely detailed study of a nervous dictator who knows only how to rule by fear. Somehow he has captured the essence of every power-crazed paranoiac from Genghis Khan to Saddam Hussein. Day-Lewis is so charismatic that he must be a cast-iron certainty to win an Oscar. The only question is which one - Actor or Supporting Actor.

Scorsese has always known how to create cinematic monsters, mostly played by Robert De Niro, but he started out with a more serious purpose. He clearly wanted to debunk the historical myth, as he sees it, that America was born out of principles of democracy, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Scorsese believes that it sprang from political corruption, gang violence and the exploitation of ignorant immigrants. This is a New York where the politicians are cynical crooks, the fire brigades are too busy beating each other up to fight fires, and the police do as much looting as the criminals.

The most telling image of the piece is not of gang warfare at all, but of John Sessions as Abraham Lincoln hanging helplessly in mid-air above a stage while the lower orders pelt him with rotten fruit.

Scorsese's message suffers from being far too melodramatic and pessimistic, and gets lost anyway, because of the screenplay's over-concentration on its trite revenge-and-romance plot, which - thanks to the casting of DiCaprio - too often brings back memories of the dodgier bits in Titanic.

It would be easy to blame Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein for insisting that Scorsese cut his film down from four hours. I would certainly like to see the director's longer version, which might well sort out some of the narrative leaps, flesh out some of the more underwritten characters, and make sense of the hopelessly botched climax.

But really the film should never have gone into production without a screenplay of manageable length. Even a year in post-production has left the project in a state where it will satisfy neither the masses nor the art-house fraternity.

This is, I fear, Scorsese's answer to Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate - a flawed classic, but also a loss-making folly which will appal any right-thinking accountant. It could mean that this enormously talented director may never get the chance to make a big-budget movie again.

Despite its faults, you should see Gangs of New York for Day-Lewis's staggering performance and some unforgettable sequences that deserve to be experienced on the big screen. Okay, it's a shambles - but a magnificent one.

Key to Symbols