Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Gangs of New York (Scorsese. 2002)

"...And no matter what they did to build this city up again, for the rest of time, it will be like no-one even knew we was ever here."


Scorsese is an amazing storyteller. Before I casually selected Gangs of New York, I had no idea that it was well over two hours long. At two hours and fifty-six minutes, this is not the longest movie that I have seen. That does not mean that two+ hour movies cannot be exhausting. This is not an exhausting movie. In fact, I do not think that there was a down moment. I was very entertained by it, but it still had its problems.

Gangs of New York opens with a dramatic and violent fight between an Irish gang and a gang of American "natives". Led by the brilliantly interpreted Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, the natives ultimately defeat their rivals and take over the city. The son of the Irish leader is a witness to his father's death at the hands of the Butcher. He silently swears to get his revenge.

Sixteen years later he has returned to New York to do just that. His name is Amsterdam Vallon and he is played over-dramatically by Leonardo DiCaprio. Once he returns he immediately finds friends in his old Irish community. He also learns that the Butcher holds a massive celebration on the day that his father was murdered. After a while, and through a series of events, Vallon falls under the wing and tutelage of the man that he is trying to kill, Bill Cutting.

After his identity is outed and his plan thwarted by the Butcher, Vallon is forced to start a war. He rallies the Irish, with some help from Boss Tweed, against Cutting's "native Americans". There is to be an epic battle, but it never actually happens. Riots in the streets cheat the audience out of an epic showdown.

The costuming, cinematography and art direction are all perfect. The majority of the performances are great - though Leo throws around his accent from Irish to almost Oklahoman in some scenes. My biggest issue, on a technical standpoint, is that Cameron Diaz seems incredibly out of place throughout the entire movie. Even her character is unnecessary to the success of the plot. There could have been more action and less plot-pushing had her character been written out of the film. Not every movie needs a love story.

It goes without saying that Daniel Day-Lewis is fantastic in Gangs of New York. Bill Cutting is one of my all-time favorite villains in film. He is racist, violent, ignorant and borderline psychotic. But there is also something pathetic, respectable and sympathetic about him. He is far more complex than your average bad guy. He is fighting for what he believes in. His brutality stems from his unrivaled love for his country. There is something to like about that, though that something is VERY small. Day-Lewis plays him with brilliance. He becomes his character and never turns to wink at the camera. A lesser talent would have forced it and overacted, but this is spot on character acting. It should have won him an Oscar, and did earn him a nomination.

My major problems with the movie are the final battle and the overall style of the violence. The opening battle is amazingly set up. The tension is epic, the music is exciting and the battle is intense. The final battle, though intense, is a major disappointment. The entire movie builds to this very moment...and nothing happens. They gangs do not even fight. I understand the significance of the scene, but it is not what I wanted after almost three hours. The aforementioned opening fight scene, along with some other violent scenes, is surprisingly un-bloody. When a person is slashed in the stomach with a meat cleaver - they bleed. They bleed a lot. The fights in the film are simply not bloody enough to be believable. Not that I am blood-thirsty, I just do not feel any pain for characters who die less painful looking deaths than Power Ranger villains.

At the end of the day, those are not the worst things that could happen to a movie. Scorsese does a great job at containing the action and presenting an embarrassing time in American history. I put a lot of stock into climactic moments, and Gangs of New York let me down. I do love the final scene in the graveyard, but the twenty minutes leading up to it are not very good. I am wishy-washy over this movie. I wanted to like it a great deal more than I actually did.

Gangs of New York: B+

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