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Gangs of New York   C+

Miramax Films

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jack Cocks, Steve Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Leonard DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Roger Ashton-Griffiths.

Review by Rob Vaux
"I believe in America."
--Bonasera (Salvatore Corsitto), The Godfather
At one point in Gangs of New York, we're treated to the sight of an elephant charging down the streets, pursued by a mob. It's a fitting image for the film as a whole: Gangs of New York seems to have escaped from its trainers and run amok. Martin Scorsese worked for decades to bring a vision of early New York crime to the screen, and the effort ultimately gets out of hand. The result is a big, baggy, sprawling carnival of a movie, stretching out before us with little rhyme or reason. Certainly, it's engrossing, but it leaves a hell of a mess behind.

Scorsese is one of the finest directors in the world, and a historical crime saga set in the city he loves so much sounds like a perfect fit. On the other hand, his best work usually focuses on intimate, personal stories (though some, like Raging Bull or Bringing Out the Dead, seem epic in execution). Gangs of New York never achieves such proximity; instead it tries to encompass everything even remotely connected to its central idea. Crime, revenge, fathers and sons, race relations, immigration problems, corrupt political bosses, abolition, the Civil War, and no less a figure than P.T. Barnum... all of it gets tossed into the mix with the vain belief that a unified whole will emerge. In that sense, Gangs of New York is much like its subject matter, a bloodied nation in search of itself.

The action centers on the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan, a slum so seedy it gave Charles Dickens fits. The Irish immigrants in the area find a harsh welcome from Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the local crime boss who believes in America for Americans. Twenty years earlier, he slew the leader of the Dead Rabbits, an Irish gang that challenged his supremacy of the territory, and he's reaped the rewards ever since. "Everybody owes, everybody pays," he boasts to an underling as he gestures towards his ragamuffin empire. But on the eve of the Draft Riots of 1863, a serpent has crept into his gangster's paradise. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), son of the Dead Rabbits' leader, has returned from exile to seek revenge. He begins by insinuating himself into the Butcher's confidence, playing his game and even growing to admire him before getting close enough to slit his throat.

The plot's Shakespearean tone is no mistake; the Five Points often appears more like a medieval kingdom -- complete with feuding tribes and dangerous warlords -- than the heart of urban decay. Gangs of New York describes its title city as a "furnace," where politics is literally bathed in blood and the pretext of democracy barely keeps the seething hordes in check. The result is a lurid melodrama, accurate in details but shamelessly pulpy in overall thrust. Scorsese uses every corner of the city as a canvas, starting with the Five Points and moving from the posh neighborhoods of the elite to the Union recruiting offices where the poor are all but marched off to war at gunpoint. In between, he slips in more conventional elements, such as a romance between DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz (playing a clever "blodgett" in Bill's employ). The disparate pieces rarely fit well together, vying for our attention as fiercely as the characters they encompass. The sheer spectacle of it all is hypnotic -- Dante Ferretti's production design is unparalleled, and Scorsese is too good to let our interest lapse -- but the drama intended to drive it all never really finds its rhythm. Instead, we have to pick and choose, seeking moments of satisfaction rather than appreciating the total package. The effect ultimately dislodges Gangs of New York from its moorings.

Day-Lewis has garnered the lion's share of praise for his performance, and while I wouldn't quite call it great, it's certainly memorable. He walks a razor's edge between genius and ham, compelling us to watch even as he threatens to go completely off the deep end. Bill possesses erudition and even a crude form of grace, but his fearsome demeanor cows all those around him into utter submission. He has a terrific entrance, as befits a proper villain, and Gangs of New York suffers greatly whenever he's not on-screen. At the same time, however, you keep holding your breath, waiting for the moment when he starts tearing off chunks of scenery with his teeth. He comes too close at times for comfort, and in that sense, perfectly matches the production around him.

His co-stars, unfortunately, have much less of an impact. DiCaprio lacks the grit that his role clearly calls for, and Diaz has been much better than the colleen pickpocket she plays here. The two trail behind Day-Lewis like forlorn attendants, trying desperately to distinguish themselves without much luck. Things improve a little further down the cast list -- specifically Jim Broadbent as the duplicitous Boss Tweed and Brendan Gleeson as an Irish brawler with a politician's instincts. Indeed Gangs of New York works wonders with such peripheral figures, adroitly displaying the blurred lines between the thugs in the street and those in Tammany Hall. A film more limited in scope might have made better use of them; as it stands, they spend too much energy just making themselves heard.

Films of this nature can defy even the greatest directors. Scorsese's passion is undiminished after all these years, and his subject here has potential greatness to it. But Gangs of New York has too much on its plate to do more than fill up the space. I suspect its ringleader had enough trouble just getting it to the screen intact. His Herculean efforts deliver a watchable pageant with flashes of brilliance, and if you need to kill three hours, there's worse ways to do it. Something more permanent, however, is beyond Gangs of New York's grasp.

Review published 01.02.2003.

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