Saturday 6 February 2016

Movie Review: Gangs Of New York (2002)

A raucous story of revenge among the rabble, Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York is impressive but also overwrought, more a visual treat than a cerebral triumph.

New York City, 1846. At Paradise Square in the poor and crime-ridden Five Points neighbourhood, rival gangs square off for a grand battle with rudimentary but lethal weapons. The Natives are led by William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), and consider themselves rightful residents and true Americans. The Dead Rabbits are more recent Irish Catholic immigrants, inspired by "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson). The Natives win the battle, and Bill kills the Priest. Vallon's son witnesses his father's death and escapes.

16 years later, the grown-up Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the old neighbourhood, seeking revenge. Bill The Butcher is now the undisputed king of Five Points, controlling all crime activities, as well as the law in the form of officer Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly). Bill, who still despises new immigrants, has also forged an uneasy alliance with politician Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who is more welcoming of new arrivals as potential voters.

Amsterdam starts a relationship with professional thief Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) and becomes a trusted advisor to Bill even as he plots to kill him. But with the civil war raging and a military conscription draft about to be imposed, there is growing unrest on the streets of New York City, and Amsterdam's quest for Bill's blood will encounter some surprising twists.

Gangs Of New York delves into a slice of history almost lost in the shrouds of time. The social anarchy of Manhattan's poor neighbourhoods between 1846 and 1862 is now all but erased from collective memory, socially and metaphorically eradicated, built upon and transformed into a modern multicultural metropolis teaming with tourists.

But this is where Scorsese goes looking for the origins of American civility and democracy, and identifies Five Points as ground zero for cultural accommodation, a place where natives and newcomers (both relative terms) squared up to each other and literally engaged in slaughter before concepts of civilized discourse seeped down to street level. In parallel the nation was defining its soul in the bloody Civil War, a conflict that may as well have been occurring on another planet as far as Five Points residents were concerned. Eventually the national and local civil wars intersect in the orgy of violence known as the Draft Riots, and the bloodletting nudges the City towards understanding its future destiny.

The film boils down the intriguing social context to a simple story of revenge, and while compelling in its intensity, the story goes marginally too far in personalizing history. Amsterdam's lust for vengeance is a relatively small story to carry a 160 minute film, and other than the magnificent sets, Scorsese cannot build much around it. Amsterdam is dour and Bill The Butcher is larger than life, but otherwise the film is surprisingly devoid of any memorable secondary characters, sub-plots, or even noteworthy incidents. The likes of Cameron Diaz, John C Reilly and Jim Broadbent are too often reduced to shallow representations, and Liam Neeson's seemingly interesting Father Vallon is knocked-off early.

But when the story gets bogged down, there is always something compelling to look at. Gangs Of New York is extraordinary as a set design feast. Recalling the lavish era of Hollywood reproducing history on sound stages, the imagined New York City of the 1860s was recreated at Rome's Cinecittà studios. The film looks gorgeous, a cross between theatrical set-piece and crime-infested but irresistible Les Misérables inspired nightmare.

Diplomacy only prevails when thugs get tired of killing, and even the Gangs Of New York start to understand that a history of greatness will only be achieved when the blood-letting ceases, and other, still imperfect tools, like voting, start to take hold. The one spectacular celebration of violence arrives early in the form of the blood thirsty rumble in the square. Once victory is proclaimed and the bodies are cleaned up, the film settles down to a long, drawn-out and colourful story of a young man seeking self-defined justice but also finding himself in danger of falling under the spell of his prey. DiCaprio and Day-Lewis, moody and flamboyant respectively, are more than capable of carrying the film, and Gangs Of New York rides their talent to a rousing ending that, while still victimized by indiscriminate violence, carries echoes of a personal and national history finally taking shape.

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1 comment:

  1. This movie should have never been set during the Civil War. It was a mistake. Day-Lewis' character is based upon someone who was killed in 1855, six years before the war started. Scorsese's portrayal of race relations in this movie is very questionable. The American-born characters like Bill Cutting seemed to be more hostile and racist toward African-Americans, whereas the Irish immigrants are more tolerant. Yet, when the Draft Riots begin, the Irish are suddenly virulently racist. Huh? Both the Irish and "the Natives" were racist toward the blacks. One group was not more tolerant than the other. If Scorsese really wanted the Draft Riots to be the centerpiece of this movie, he should have focused more on race relations and been more honest about it.

    As for his portrayal toward Chinese immigrants . . . good grief! They seemed to be in the movie for the sole purpose of being ethnic stereotypes. And honestly, this movie could have been a lot shorter.


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