THE STORY – Amsterdam Vallon is a young Irish immigrant released from prison. He returns to the Five Points seeking revenge against his father’s killer, William Cutting, a powerful anti-immigrant gang leader. He knows that revenge can only be attained by infiltrating Cutting’s inner circle. Amsterdam’s journey becomes a fight for personal survival and to find a place for the Irish people in 1860’s New York.
THE CAST – Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Henry Thomas & Liam Neeson
THE TEAM – Martin Scorsese (Director) & Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan (Screenwriter)
THE RUNNING TIME – 167 Minutes
Martin Scorsese’s films carry with them an aura, a sense that they are being put together by some of the most artful and reliable hands in the history of the medium. It’s a sense that’s mostly been true, as evidenced by his staggeringly impressive resume. That being said, there have been a couple of films that have gotten away from Scorsese and become more famous for their production woes than their quality. “Gangs of New York” (2002) is a prime example.
Scorsese first read Herbert Asbury’s book “The Gangs of New York” in 1970 and was immediately taken with its cinematic possibilities. If properly translated, the history of 19th-century gangs could serve as an origin story for (and, in many ways, an indictment of) the neighborhoods he grew up frequenting. Obviously, given the time and money needed to bring 1863 New York to life, Scorsese had to wait. The success of films like “Mean Streets” (1973) and “Taxi Driver” (1976) led to him buying the rights to Asbury’s book in 1979. Still, once again, the price tag accompanying his vision led to a string of rejections from studios like 20th Century Fox, Paramount Pictures, and Warner Bros. The rejections spanned two decades, and Scorsese directed 11 films in the interim.
Eventually, Scorsese was able to secure a $100 million budget from Miramax, and his belated passion project hit theaters in 2002. Was it worth the wait? Well, frankly, no. “Gangs of New York” has a lot going for it, as all Scorsese films do, but the difficulties he encountered during pre-production turned out to be a warning of what was to come during the production and pre-production process. It shows in the final product. Scorsese admitted that the arduous process of making “Gangs of New York” made him contemplate retirement, which was something he obviously (and thankfully) recanted.
Let’s talk plot. “Gangs of New York” tracks the power struggle between Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the nationalist gangster who reigns over Five Points, and Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a thief seeking vengeance against Bill for killing his father. Amsterdam infiltrates Bill’s outfit, and they develop a strained, pseudo-father-son dynamic that culminates with a bloody confrontation. The bones of a great film are present in this simple premise, and the screenplay was penned by three Oscar nominees: Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan.
Unfortunately, the presence of three different writers proves to be a detriment rather than a benefit. “Gangs of New York” is a classic case of there being too many cooks in the kitchen, as the film tries to be a romance, a revenge thriller, and a sprawling period drama without bothering to unify these oftentimes disparate threads. A scene between Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher has an entirely different rhythm than one between Amsterdam and Jenny (Cameron Diaz) in that the former works toward Scorsese’s ultimate thesis, and the latter is a subplot that was studio-mandated in order to secure financing. The schism this creates within the film becomes more pronounced as its nearly three-hour runtime wears on, and by the end, the virtues are hard to recall amidst the flaws.
Scorsese brings his typical mastery as a stylist, with the prologue being one of his most brutal and memorable set pieces. Bill the Butcher murders Amsterdam’s father (Liam Neeson) in an 1846 battle for Five Points, and the animalistic rage in the character’s eye is matched by the ferocity of the gang members around them. It sets a tone similar to the D-Day invasion from “Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Still, unlike his buddy Steven Spielberg, Scorsese is unable to sustain the heightened sense of tension, which is strange, given that the director is playing with ingredients he knows how to use. The time skip after the prologue is reminiscent of “Goodfellas” (1990), and the tension between Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher is eerily similar to the dynamic between DiCaprio and Jack Nicholson’s characters in “The Departed” (2006), but these scenes feel stifled by comparison.
The performances are similarly lacking. DiCaprio had already proven himself to be an acting prodigy and would go on to prove himself a worthy muse for Scorsese, but Amsterdam requires a maturity, and the actor was simply unequipped to pull off in 2002. He spends most of the film with the same pained expression on his face, and worse still, he looks distractingly modern amidst the character actors (Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, Jim Broadbent) who blend into the time period seamlessly. That’s to say nothing of his Irish accent, which alternates between good, inadequate, and nonexistent. DiCaprio is a quick study, however, and his excellent performance in “The Aviator” (2004) proved that he could deliver the goods with a better script and more assured direction. Diaz is not bad here, but she suffers from miscasting, a similarly spotty accent, and writing that gives her little to do besides clean wounds and comfort the leads. The scene where Jenny picks a suitor to dance with shows what the actress is capable of when given the chance to settle in and showcase her expressive features.
The one actor who manages to transcend the messiness is Daniel Day-Lewis. It’s become trite to say that an actor “disappeared” into a role, but this is the rare case in which it’s not hyperbole. The man who played Christy Brown in “My Left Foot” (1989) and would go on to play “Lincoln” (2012) is nowhere to be found, and instead, we get a menacing, lurching figure who instills fear in the hearts of anyone he encounters. The best scenes in the film center on Bill the Butcher, whether it be his attempted assassination, knife-throwing showcase, or the goosebump-inducing monologue he gives by Amsterdam’s bedside. Draped in an American flag and reckoning with the realization that he killed one of the few men he respected, Bill provides the viewer with a glimpse of a film that’s leaner and sharper. Day-Lewis claimed the only Oscar nomination in the cast, and he could not have done more to earn it.
What makes “Gangs of New York” so frustrating is that the bones of a great film are visible. The climactic showdown between Amsterdan and Bill the Butcher is cut short by the real-life draft riots. Had the buildup been stronger, the notion of their internal gang struggle being dwarfed by an internal national struggle would have hit harder. As it stands, it’s a thesis without much support. It feels like the rare instance in which Scorsese is more interested in the setting than the characters, and as such, we’re given little incentive to be invested in what happens.
Scorsese wants to illustrate how meaningless the gang names and rivalries are when placed within the context of American history, and the final shot, a time-lapse of a New York cemetery from 1863 to 2001 (Twin Towers intact), does manage to articulate this in a simple, powerful manner. It also brings things full circle. As a child, Scorsese would frequently pass the St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Manhattan. The church’s gravestones dated back nearly a century, and as such, the future storyteller would contemplate who the people were and what they did when they were alive. There’s a beauty in Scorsese being able to realize this childhood fascination in the form of a sprawling, Oscar-nominated epic.
Unfortunately, the beauty is obscured by unfocused writing and inconsistent pacing (there have been contradictory reports of a longer director’s cut, but Scorsese has stated that the theatrical cut is his intended vision). “Gangs of New York” is still worth seeing, but all things considered, it’s near the bottom of an otherwise stellar filmography.