Scorcese's very much delayed epic is finally here and it has everyone asking: Was it worth the wait? Well, it depends on what the wait was for...
If we were waiting for for plenty of gory violence, we got it (although that may not be a good thing). If we were waiting for terrific acting, we got it. And if we were waiting for a true filmmaker's exploration of New York's bloody history, we got that too. What we also got in the bargain, however, is a limited point of view.
The film takes off in 1846, as a clan of Irish immigrants are about to take part in a deadly battle at the dire Five Corners of New York City, an area where crime is business and business is crime. The Irish are led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and their clash is with William Cutting, also known as Bill The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his Anglo-Saxon 'natives.' When Vallon is killed by William, his son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sent away to an orphanage for the next 16 years. There he awaits his chance for retribution. When finally Amsterdam returns to Five Corners, he faces a city that is practically ran by Cutting. As Amsterdam plots his way to overthrow the Butcher, he recruits his own gang and a talented pickpocket (Cameron Diaz). All this is set to the tune of extreme violence, detested conscription, heated politics, bigotry, anarchy and the Draft Riots of 1863.
With "Gangs of New York," critically acclaimed director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver) displays why he is so highly thought of. The film is bold, astounding, cinematically stunning and grabbing. All this while featuring buckets of blood, guts, knives, bats and axes, with almost just as much drama. Dark and disturbing, "Gangs" poses major moral conflicts and discusses with brutal vividness the history of New York, its people and its gangs.
Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus brings to life Old New York with a monochromatic tint, smoke and the glimmering fires that make the night seem menacing. Similarly the art direction by Robert Guerra and Stefano Maria Ortloni is stunning. Together, along with production designer Dante Ferretti, they form a remarkably authentic city. The city that never sleeps.
However, Scorsese presents hidden and forgotten history, which can make it difficult for the audience to transfer into their own lives aside from the historical lesson because it is never pushed enough in relation to us today. The film also represents a very narrow view where we are never taken inside the characters' minds, to see how they feel about their own actions. Also, here, the underdog seems to be much more valued, even if his actions are as bad as his counterpart's. The characters are mostly painted as either 'good' or 'bad,' with very few variations. Those who have money are daft capitalists and those who have political power are completely corrupt. Although the latter may not be entirely untrue, "Gangs" presents a restricted vision of New York's history. This is dangerous.
What's exceptional to watch, however, are the actors. Although DiCaprio does not quite look the part, he and his thirst for revenge is thoroughly believable. Especially strong are the battles within him in regards to 'Bill,' the man who murdered his father vs. the man who sees Amsterdam as the son he never had. Cameron Diaz is extremely impressive here as Jenny Everdeane, the pickpocket that snatches Amsterdam's heart. Her performance is simply bewitching. But the spotlight is stolen by Daniel Day-Lewis, who keeps us watching ever so intently by utilizing his great charisma. Although he is the blood-spilling, butchering 'villain' here, there is so much more going on. He embodies a humane balance between humor, evil, sadness, terror, remorse and power. He is a conflicted and complex character, in a performance that's oozing with charm. In fact, the entire film leans on his shoulders. The rest of the cast involves decent supporting work from actors like Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, and Henry Thomas.
Gangs of New York allows us an inside look at an epic time and the characters that took part in it. Although that gaze is imperfect and restricted, it is a worthy effort. The aspects that did succeed are owed largely to the cast, crisp dialogue, stunning cinematography and direction. No, we did not get a masterpiece here, but the vigor is admirable.
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