Gangs of New York

on December 20, 2002 by Ray Greene
Call it the "Paradise Lost" syndrome. In that famous poetic epic, John Milton created a titanic struggle of good vs. evil, God against the Devil, with the naive Adam and Eve as his protagonists and the literal Prince of Darkness as their mortal enemy. It's a massive and impressive work with one essential flaw: Satan is the most interesting character. And he isn't supposed to be.

Something like that kind of algebra is working against Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," although it's far from the film's only flaw. An unbelievably vast and indulgent film, "Gangs" is supposedly a dream project Scorsese has nursed for decades (and we must say "supposedly" here, since so much of the information given out on this film is propaganda aimed at Oscar voters). If it is indeed true that Scorsese hoped to make this movie in the late '70s, before even "Raging Bull" came to pass, it's a shame he didn't get to it sooner. Because for all the budgetary excess, for all the self-consciously epic photography and the marvelously florid period costumes, this film is very much a hedged bet, and it's hard to imagine that the young Scorsese, a daring and innovative film stylist, would have settled for such a sodden and blandly archetypal treatment of such incendiary material.

Part of the trouble most likely originates with the flop sweat Miramax topper Harvey Weinstein has been secreting about this potentially company bankrupting production for over a year now. Editorially, is a surprisingly choppy film from a master filmmaker, and there are a great many scenes that play out in distant shots in which the dialogue being spoken onscreen does not match up at all with the dialogue on the film's soundtrack--a sure sign of post-production "tinkering," as they say. Plot implausibilities seem to have alarmed even the filmmakers, since there's a voiceover line in the first few minutes from Leo DiCaprio saying something like "Most of this I remember, the rest is as things come to me in dreams"--in other words, don't take this historic epic literally, Academy voters, 'cause it can't really sustain that sort of attention.

It's 1862, and DiCaprio is the picturesquely named Amsterdam Vallon, an Irish street tough with the first of the film's shall we say unique Irish dialects, who has returned to the Five Points slum district of a fetid, treacherous and, worst of all, unpaved New York. Amsterdam is an orphan, and he's come back to kill the man who made him so: Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis), a maniacal anti-immigrant gangster and political enforcer for New York's roguish mayor, the lavishly crooked "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Apparently fraught by his need to delay his confrontation with Bill long enough to fill up the film's three hour running time, Amsterdam skulks, hesitates, is taken under the Butcher's wing, sets an arbitrary date for assassinating the patron he has come to admire (because "a king should be killed in public" or somesuch, the voiceover desperately tells us) and manages, while biding his time for what seems like years, to fall in love with a pretty pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). For reasons clearer to the filmmakers than they are to the audience, the whole thing ends in the horrifying Civil War Draft Riots of 1863, a vast canvas of mayhem which seems to have little connection to the events depicted, despite Scorsese's attempts to frame all that historical violence as essentially an immigrant insurrection against the established order.

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that Scorsese and his brigade of screenwriters have self-consciously patterned the Amsterdam/Bill the Butcher conflict on Shakespeare's "Hamlet" (what the heck--it worked for "The Lion King"). The film's problems essentially begin right there, though, because "Gangs'" central conflict is sociopolitical, and "Hamlet's" is psychological. Until he belatedly and rather inexplicably becomes an Irish revolutionary, Amsterdam's motivations have nothing to do with the wider and lovingly recreated political milieu. He is on a vendetta, like a thousand other movie heroes, and he's very much a stick figure, strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage in a vacuum as a result.

Poor DiCaprio seems to recede even further thanks to Daniel Day-Lewis' bracingly theatrical Bill the Butcher. As the only actor in the movie who seems to have known enough to swell his mannerisms to fill all the overblown decor, Day-Lewis is an unalloyed delight. Wearing a handlebar mustache the size of a hedge animal, speaking in a New Yawk accent worthy of a '40s film noir cabbie, and spewing flowery dialogue that sounds ripped from the pages of the King James Bible, Day-Lewis takes a textually implausible creature and turns him into a brash cartoon of complicated menace, a figure who seems to have stepped out of one of those illustrated political broadsides that helped bring the real "Boss" Tweed and his Tammany Hall political machine to ground. Like Milton's Satan, he's so vivid a villain that he unbalances the equation, making it all the more difficult to care much about Amsterdam and Jenny and all their badly brogued hesitancy to act.

What might have been comes and goes in the film's brutal if a bit over-directed opening, which pits a younger Bill the Butcher against his only real nemesis, and the one man he himself sees as a worthy adversary: Amsterdam's father, "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson). As the towering Neeson, equipped with a broadsword sheathed in a massive crucifix, faces down the glass-eyed Bill, a proud, convincing and larger-than-life representative of the first wave of Irish immigration confronts a vicious and equally magnified caricature of Nativist bigotry in an orgiastic display of ethnic hatred. It's a scene that feels like the climax to some other, better movie, and one the Scorsese of the late 1970s seems somehow to have been more likely to produce. Starring Leonardo Di Caprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz. Directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Jay Cocks and Steven Zallian and Kenneth Lonergan. Produced by Alberto Grimaldi and Harvey Weinstein. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language. Running time: 167 min

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