Three out of Five stars
Running time: 168 mins
Scorsese’s long-awaited epic is ultimately disappointing – it’s messy, much too long and incredibly violent, but worth seeing for a staggering performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.
Gangs of New York probably has the distinction of being the longest-awaited picture of Martin Scorsese’s career. After a reputedly torturous shoot which began in 1999, it was due to be released in December 2001, before being delayed for a year because it was thought that audiences wouldn’t stomach so much New York-based bloodshed that close to September 11th.
Unsurprisingly, this has given rise to rumours of ‘post September 11th touch-ups’. Unfortunately, the finished product hasn’t exactly been worth the wait and fails to live up to the admittedly high expectations that surrounded it.
Bizarre Stovepipe Hats
The story is pretty basic. It begins in the Five Points district of New York in the 1840s, with an astonishing opening battle sequence in which Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and his Dead Rabbit Gang square off against Bill The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his Natives Gang, who distinguish themselves by wearing bizarre stovepipe hats, which are certain to cause unintentional giggles.
Anyway, Neeson gets horribly killed by Day-Lewis, which is a terrible shame because you want to know more about his character. Anyway, his son scarpers, swearing revenge, and returns 16 years later as ‘Amsterdam Vallon’ (now played by Leonardo DiCaprio).
By this time the monstrous Bill The Butcher (complete with a glass eye that he occasionally taps, menacingly, with his knife) is head of all the Five Points gangs and is busy aligning himself with corrupt politicians such as real-life historical figure Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Sure enough, Amsterdam becomes one of his most trusted men, with the Butcher unaware of whom he really is or what he plans to do.
Meanwhile, Amsterdam hooks up with his best friend (E.T.’s Elliot, Henry Thomas) and falls in love with pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), who has her own ties to Bill…
Dickens Gone Mad
What the film lacks in the tightness of its plotting (it takes forever for Amsterdam to actually DO anything), it more than makes up for in the quality of its performances. DiCaprio is entirely convincing in the part – his accent wobbles a bit, but it’s nowhere near the Brad Pitt ‘Oirish’-type disaster it could have been and doesn’t detract from his performance.
If there’s a problem, it’s only that Amsterdam is less of a character than everyone else – they all have a sort of demented Dickensian quality- meaning that he’s the least colourful and, effectively, the least interesting.
Similarly, Diaz is perfectly good in her eye-candy role (her “I forget which necklace is yours” scene is extremely welcome) and at least her accent isn’t as bad as Heather Graham’s in From Hell, but overall, she’s given too little to do.
The performance of the film, however, belongs to Daniel Day-Lewis, who is absolutely electric. You can't take your eyes off him - you savour his every line (and he has some great ones) and look forward to his every appearance. There’s also just a subtle hint of DeNiro (who was originally set to play the role) in Bill The Butcher – not quite enough to accuse Day-Lewis of parody but enough to give film fans a little buzz. He will almost certainly be Oscar-nominated, even if the film itself isn’t.
It's a shame Day-Lewis steals the film so comprehensively, because there's great work from the other actors too, notably John C. Reilly (as a trusted gang member turned bent cop), Jim Broadbent and in particular Brendan Gleeson, as the thug for hire, who gets elected Sheriff.
Sprawling, Overlong, Bloodthirsty…Epic
The sets, all of which were constructed in Rome at the Cinecitta studios, are wonderful, as is the impressive cinematography by Michael Ballhaus. The ‘hidden history’ side of the story is fascinating (particularly the competing fire and police forces –a long way from “New York’s Finest”- and the bloody draft-dodging riots) and it’s easy to see the appeal to Scorsese of the link between the birth of democracy and the rise of organised crime.
However, the film doesn’t have the drive of Scorsese’s undisputed masterpiece, Goodfellas – it drags where it ought to sweep you along, and ultimately it lacks the greatness that Scorsese fans were hoping for.
Somewhat paradoxically, for a film that is way too long, it is brilliantly edited, courtesy of Scorsese’s long-time collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker. The opening sequence in particular, is astonishing.
To sum up, then, the film is undeniably spectacular to look at and contains some characteristically brilliant moments, but the overall effect is of a sprawling, over-long, bloodthirsty epic, peopled with characters that it’s very difficult to care about. As such, it’s worth seeing for Day-Lewis and some of the sequences, but it's not up there with Scorsese's best.
As for post-September 11th tweaking, it features a time-lapse photography 'Here comes New York' speeded-up bit at the end (we see the towers go up, but not down), which was probably ill advised.