After Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) performs an act that calls his allegiances into question, one character in the know remarks, "That was bloody Shakespearian." These are two words that adequately describe GANGS OF NEW YORK. The film is Shakespearian and it is most certainly bloody.
The film opens with the image of a raw razorblade scraping against a rugged face. It sets the stage for an odd juxtaposition of honor and brutality throughout the film. The blade belongs to Priest (Liam Neeson), who is preparing for battle with his nemesis, Bill Cutty, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). As his little boy attempts to wipe the blade clean, his father stops him, telling him something that will resonate throughout his life - "The blood stays on the blade."
The dispute is between two gangs for control of the Five Points of New York. The gangs are divided not only by their allegiances and their turf, but by their nationalities as well. Cutty comes from the stock that loathes the immigrants who arrive in the harbor daily by the boatload. Priest's "Dead Rabbits" represent the Irish immigrants who seemed to face discrimination on all fronts. Far from duking it out with fists or pistols, the two gangs wield knives and cleavers, hacking at each other in the middle of town. If I had learned this in my American History classes, I would have never fallen asleep.
Priest falls to Bill the Butcher and his child flees. He comes back years later in the guise of Amsterdam. After a young life filled with lawlessness, the time has finally come to even the score. As he arrives in New York, he notes that it is still not a city proper, "More like a furnace where a city might one day be formed."
He arrives in town and starts learning whom to trust. If he knows what's good for him, he will get on the side of New York's king, Bill Cutty. Bill has increased in influence throughout the years. Everyone remembers the day he slaughtered Amsterdam's father, a day looked upon with reverence and fear. Amsterdam naturally hides his identity and his true purpose.
Appropriate since his true purpose gets muddied as he begins to enjoy the benefits of power. Also, he catches the eye of a beautiful pickpocket, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). Everything in the story continues to evolve like a tale of classic mythology, until it finally comes time for age-old rivals to meet in order to claim the trophy of vengeance and the city of New York.
Mention, "the greatest director alive today" and most people will immediately think of Martin Scorsese. He's on just about everyone's short list for the honor. He has, in fact directed my personal favorite film, TAXI DRIVER. GANGS represents a pet project for Scorsese. It took twenty-five years and the financing of two studios to get the production running. Needless to say, expectations for this film are high and almost impossible to meet.
GANGS represents a piece of forgotten history, always something of interest throughout film history. The History Channel can give you a lot of details, but it doesn't contain the pure human drama and visceral thrill of the big screen. Forgotten history has also met with mixed results. It could win you a Best Picture Oscar, like BRAVEHEART or it could nearly bankrupt a studio, like HEAVEN'S GATE. GANGS OF NEW YORK is a success. Not the magnum opus Scorsese was planning on but a success nonetheless.
Actually, that's a bit of an understatement, since even when Scorsese doesn't deliver one of his best films, it's still miles better most everything else out there. Being above average, GANGS OF NEW YORK is an incredible experience overall.
Daniel Day-Lewis is nothing short of amazing as Bill the Butcher. His accent, his steely one-eyed glare, and his complex set of loyalties and emotions make him a multi-faceted character that should be remembered. He is aware of his power. Since he controls the meat, he controls the people. He seems simultaneously proud and burdened by this. I am not expecting him to carry home the Oscar come Awards night but he certainly deserves it. Day-Lewis' strict method teaching pays off here, better than perhaps any other role he's played, at least since MY LEFT FOOT.
Cameron Diaz also carries her own. She drew a lot of skepticism when she won the coveted part in this film and some have still not let up about it. But she does an excellent job here. Almost immediately after her debut in THE MASK, Diaz's evolution as an actress was in constant motion. She finally deserves to get her due.
Leonardo DiCaprio is a bit hard to get used to at first. It's not his fault. After the brutal prologue, the screenplay seems stuck in constant exposition for about 45 minutes and DiCaprio has to play the adjusting young man throughout most of it. This comes complete with a strange dialect and an accent that even the filmmakers admit is mostly guess work. It's just not easy to say lines like, "She's a prim stargazer" with just the right amount of conviction.
Unlike some, I do not hate DiCaprio. Yes, I found TITANIC to be an overblown melodramatic bore, made more tragic by the talented actors who would always be remembered for it and it alone. Since then, DiCaprio has returned to his roots of choosing risky and demanding projects. He eventually settles in to his part, after about the first hour and continues to do just fine throughout.
The film strives for authenticity and Scorsese has a big story to tell. All the sets are so expertly reconstructed that if anything was faked, you could have fooled me. Everything is given perfect detail and it's certainly one of the most lovingly rendered films I've seen in some time.
But as with the case in Big Stories, the question is whether they tell too much or just enough. It's been a short while now since I've seen GANGS OF NEW YORK, and to be honest, I'm still unsure. Scorsese claims to have at least forty extra minutes lying around, and possibly more. Could that work in the film's favor?.
The first half of GANGS OF NEW YORK, which focuses mainly on Amsterdam's adjustment to 19th century New York and his subsequent corruption, already moves a little too slow. There is perhaps some trimming that could be done here, around fifteen minutes' worth being ideal. And yet, there are even unanswered questions in this section. One thing I wondered about was why were the Irish the only people who got along with the recently emancipated African Americans? We see them pal around amidst obvious prejudice, but there is no explanation. We have to just assume that they are bound through struggle. But then why not a solid relationship with the many Chinese? So, who knows if these questions were answered? Would this extra footage justify the length of this section, or would it make it more tedious?
Thankfully, things pick up in the second half, as we resume our focus on Amsterdam's vengeance quest and the toll it takes on him. The full Shakespearian arc concludes here, as lines in the sand are drawn, the boy grows into a man and politicians plot. While all the plotting takes place, New York's melting pot is getting ready to boil over. The film also contains scenes which will have a definite, if unintentional resonance in the wake of the events on September 11th, 2001.
GANGS OF NEW YORK is one of those films which you are unsure of at the outset, but which develops into a truly memorable picture. As I look back on it now, it's a work that will likely stay with me always, even if it has it's flaws.
Scorsese's direction is, as can be expected, nearly flawless. It's a beautiful yet incredibly violent and raw work, in which murder and mutilation exists alongside a strange moral code. It's a secret history of the United States, where death and rebirth are inseparably linked for all eternity.