Gangs of New York
M O V I E   R E V I E W   B Y   G A R Y   J O H N S O N

The title of Martin Scorsese's new film, Gangs of New York, sounds like it could be related to Goodfellas or Mean Streets, Scorsese's highly-regarded examinations of the contemporary crime scene in New York City. But Gangs of New York defies expectations. For those people unfamiliar with Herbert Asbury's book length study of the notorious Five Points neighborhood and the vicious political machinery that ruled it (circa 1860s), this film will seem as foreign as a Western set on Mars (a comparison made by the movie's screenwriter, Jay Cocks, while discussing the allure of Asbury's book).

Indeed, in the movie's first few minutes, as a gang of combatants marches through tunnels deep beneath the city, in anticipation of a confrontation with a despised enemy, it's difficult to place the scene in terms of chronology or place. It almost seems like a science fiction yarn, with retro weapons (axes, meat cleavers, clubs, etc.), teeth filed to points, and black leather garb. Could it be a relative of John Carpenter's Ghosts of Mars? But then the shocking reality of Scorsese's yarn sets in: this is New York City of the mid 1800s. The effect is unsettling -- especially as the "gangs" face off on a snow-covered field. Soon the entire field is stained pink -- from the spray of crushed skulls and severed arms. West Side Story this isn't.

This was the time of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall -- a time when political corruption and graft were the norm. A time when "Nativists" (as they proudly called themselves) scorned the Irish immigrants arriving on the docks, resenting lost jobs and wages to these newcomers who worked for next to nothing.

Scorsese has re-envisioned this era as prime ground for myth building, for the creation of legends. As such, he's less interested in documentary realism than he is in creating a larger-than-life canvass of outrageous characters and exaggerated heroic feats. Scorsese makes the events and setting look vaguely similar to the world that we know: no Paul Bunyan-esque tall-story characters show up. Scorsese doesn't go that far. He keeps the exaggeration just enough in check to make people wonder "could life in Five Points really have been this horrific?"

Scorsese has a double edged agenda: 1) to claim this era in terms of its outrageous exploits and to weave a New York mythology based on the exploits and 2) to reclaim the action movie genre with an emphasis on unsubtle, in-your-face American aesthetics. Whereas Hong Kong cinema redefined the action movie and prompted critics to trot out adjectives such as "balletic" and "hyperkinetic," Gangs of New York eschews grace in favor of brick-to-the-head bluntness. Scorsese doesn't try to finesse us with his characters and events. Instead he wows us with sheer brutality, meted out with no excuses. His camera doesn't hide the violence. It doesn't peek around corners or through shutters. It provides a full-frontal assault on our senses that reveals a world of unimaginable violence. Just surviving in the world of Scorsese's Five Points would have been a major accomplishment. Virtually every time the camera takes us down the streets of this neighborhood, you'll see a crime taking place in some part of the frame, usually of the assault and/or extortion variety. Scorsese creates this world in vivid, horrifying terms.

In the opening sequence, Scorsese introduces us to Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). They are leaders of rival gangs. Vallon leads the Dead Rabbits, a gang comprised of Irish immigrants, and Bill the Butcher leads the Nativists, a gang that hates the Irish and keeps a tight grip on all activities in the neighborhood. Priest Vallon's young son watches as Bill the Butcher's knife finds his father's chest and the battle stops dead. 16 years later, we see Vallon's son, named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), walking these same streets again, after his release from Hells Gate School of Reform. And now he has revenge on his mind. To take this revenge, he insinuates himself in Bill the Butcher's gang. However, as Bill the Butcher takes him under his wing and treats him like a son, and Bill becomes the father that Amsterdam has not had for many years, Amsterdam's allegiances become complicated. Cameron Diaz enters this mix as Amsterdam's love interest. She plays a pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane who is hardened by the street life, but she is attracted to Amsterdam. And arguably the most important supporting character is Jim Broadbent's Boss Tweed: "The appearance of the law must be withheld -- especially when it's being broken," he says. All gangs report to him as they keep a stranglehold on New York and ensure that all elections go toward Tweed's candidates.

Herbert Asbury's book, which Scorsese's film took as its inspiration, is hardly an accurate account of life in Boss Tweed's New York. Rather Asbury was drawn to exaggeration and peopled his account of Five Points with characters such as Mose of the Bowery Boys. Asbury made Mose eight feet tall and claimed he wore a 50 gallon keg of ale on his belt in place of a canteen. Asbury loved to mix fact with tall tales and Scorsese continues this mixture in his film, but he tones down the exaggerations so that the characters and events carry a tinge of plausibility. Scorsese offers this revisionist view of history as a breeding ground for myth and legends, inviting deification of characters such as Bill the Butcher, Amsterdam Vallon, Boss Tweed, and Jenny Everdeane as great city builders to be revered. This is arguably Scorsese's greatest accomplishment. He rewrites American history with the Úlan of a true visionary artist. The resulting movie is astonishing -- at least in terms of its visuals and its action aesthetics.

However, not all its characters are quite on this same level. Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher is a remarkable creation, a rabid racist who exudes a vicious form of charm that makes him compelling. And Jim Broadbent's Boss Tweed is thoroughly engaging. However, Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam Vallon and Cameron Diaz's Jenny Everdeane are just wisps of characters. They exist more on the charm of their actors than upon any traits of the characters they're playing. This is the movie's main weakness -- and it's what keeps a potentially great movie from achieving greatness. When this movie comes to an end, it's hard to really care much about the people you've just watched for over two and a half hours. I most certainly wanted to see Bill the Butcher get his comeuppance. But lost in the movie's overpowering rush, the movie's central protagonists struggle to remain relevant.

Nonetheless, Gangs of New York is an amazing film. It will no doubt confound some viewers who will have trouble appreciating its over-the-top approach to storytelling. And I'm sure many other viewers and critics will be carried away by the movie's overwhelming visuals and readily pronounce this film as an absolute masterpiece. But I come down somewhere between these two camps. I wish Scorsese had either completely embraced the tall-tale approach or strove for a more realistic and less over-the-top approach, for Scorsese's characters are compromises. They're stuck between the world of tall-tale mythology and the world of documentary realism. And as a result they're not completely satisfying on either level

[rating: 3 of 4 stars]

Studio Web site: Miramax Films
Movie Web site: Gangs of New York



Photo credits: © 2002 Miramax Films. All rights reserved.