GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002) 

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Leonardo DiCaprio
Daniel Day-Lewis
Cameron Diaz
Jim Broadbent
John C. Reilly
Henry Thomas
Liam Neeson
Brendan Gleeson
Gary Lewis
Stephen Graham
Eddie Marsan

Martin Scorcese




Time: 166 mins.
Rating: R
Genre: History/Drama/Romance

Academy Award nominations for Best Actor (Lewis), Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Editing, Sound, Song, Original Screenplay, Director and Picture.

Scorcese's love affair with his hometown bears pointless fruit in this laborious effort about the "birth" of New York City. Like all entries into life, this film is terribly bloody and seems to last forever, delivering mind-numbing pain along the way. A masterpiece of scope and vision, the story plods along, failing to capture the energy and heart needed to complete the experience. While Day-Lewis gives a performance to remember – fairly bursting off the screen with wickedness – DiCaprio and Diaz meander along, forcing us to take insolence and sullenness as depth of character. Though both are decent actors, within their genres, neither has the breadth of talent to carry a picture of this magnitude. Never once did I believe that even a bulked up Leo could wreak vengeance on a man like Bill the Butcher.

This would be a major problem, if it weren't for an even bigger one: I didn't give a rat's ass about his quest to avenge his father's death. Now even in his limited screen time, Neeson shows the youngsters what good acting is all about, but since we don't really get to know much about his character, it's hard to care that he's dead. His murder, during a neighborhood street battle, at the hands of Bill is supposed to be the impetus for DiCaprio's desire for revenge. What it becomes is a minor subplot of a much greater story about the class wars, corruption, destruction and ultimate rebirth of NYC. I'm usually a sucker for an historical epic and Scorcese captures the sheer horror of living in this time in America to a gruesome tee, however, I was less than awed with what passed as a story. There's so much going on that every different part – the Native/Irish struggle, the love story, the Tammany politics, the Civil War draft outrage and the revenge plot – gets short shrift.

"He was the only man I ever killed worth remembering."

Granted all of these issues, except for the revenge and romance angles, were part of the melting pot of emotions that poured over New York at the time, but including them all creates screenplay chaos. Maybe that was the point, to show how overwhelming and dangerous life was in the 1800s. Believe me, after two and a half hours of bloody, muddy streets, that's a point well taken. As a woman, I'm also becoming offended by filmmakers' needs to include love stories in films where they don't belong. Ever since TITANIC, there's a corporate need to appeal to the female audience in every picture regardless of subject matter. There are so many interesting aspects to this story that could have been explored more fully, yet instead we get Leo and Cameron in a lip lock. I suppose, their relationship is supposed to give us hope for the future, something for the man to fight for. If killing the evil bastard that butchered your father in front of your eyes isn't enough of a reason, the dewy skin of a young prostitute isn't going to give any added inspiration.

The film opens in the winter of 1848 in the final moments before a street fight between the Nativists (those whose Protestant families have been in America for several generations) and the Irish Catholic immigrants who have recently inundated the streets of New York. The winner of the battle will have dominion over the Five Points area, a nasty slum where they all live and work. The opposing leaders are Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis) and Priest Vallon (Neeson). The fight is brutal and deadly with the Natives coming out on top and young Amsterdam Vallon left fatherless. Out of respect for his father, Bill sends Amsterdam to the Hellgate House of Reform, an "orphanage" that will supposedly take care of the boy. Cut to 16 years later, when Amsterdam (DiCaprio) is released from Hellgate and returns to Five Points. The country is in the middle of the Civil War and the first mandatory draft is being discussed. The strife between the Nativists and every other minority in New York City has never ceased. The city government is overrun with corruption led by the notorious Boss Tweed (Broadbent). Five Points is still a raging slum, run with a deadly fist by Bill the Butcher with the permission of Tweed.

With the help of his old friend Johnny (Thomas), Amsterdam quickly finds himself a member of Bill's extensive entourage. His honest face, bright ideas and fighting spirit catch Bill's eye and eventually land him a place in the inner circle. After a few minor altercations, he also wins the heart of Jenny (Diaz), a pretty prostitute and cunning thief, much to the dismay of Johnny who had hoped to win her himself. Life becomes further complicated by the wealth and power he comes to possess through his affiliation with Bill. Of course, he's only pretending to enjoy it as part of his plan to garner Bill's trust in order to be close enough to kill him. His scheme runs off the tracks when his true identity is betrayed. Bill doesn't take to kindly to be lied to and takes his anger out of Amsterdam's hide. He escapes with his life and a new found resolve to unite his people. The huddled Irish masses outnumber the natives and try to win honor and respect the legitimate way, through politics. What Amsterdam fails to realize is how deep Bill's hatred for the Irish is and how far he's willing to go to secure his own interests. The Draft Riots provide the spark for a final showdown that is certain to end with Bill's destruction. This being a big budget tale, there's no other possible conclusion.

Scorcese's weight as a Hollywood auteur is clearly the reason behind the ringing acclaim for this film. How it was nominated over ADAPTATION or FAR FROM HEAVEN for Best Picture, I'll never know. At least those two films brought a unique vision and style to the screen. Which isn't to say that some of the nominations aren't warranted, because visually this film is stunning. I'm just thrilled I didn't have to sit through it in the theater. The film is beautifully shot and artfully constructed, but the story left me cold and disgusted. DiCaprio may be hailed as the next big thing, but, frankly, I don't buy it. He's much more convincing in his other December effort, CATCH ME IF YOU CAN. He doesn't make the grade here. I'm not sure if another actor could have made this role more palatable, but they sure couldn't have made it worse. Diaz is equally unconvincing as the thick-skinned thief. It's not that she does anything wrong, she just sticks out like a sore thumb. Perhaps if they weren't playing opposite one of the most brilliant actors of our age, they wouldn't look so bad. Watching Day-Lewis here just made me sad, because he's more than likely going to "retire" again and that's a real shame. He's always a joy to watch, no matter what type of character he plays, because you know he's going to bring something unique and powerful to the screen. Without him, watching this film would have been completely unbearable. The backdrop history of this film is so interesting, I'm tempted to buy the book to find out more. Unfortunately, Scorcese felt it necessary to make something up instead of sticking to what's real, which was the more compelling aspect to the tale. All I can say is watch at your own risk. This is not an easy film to enjoy.

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