"Gangs of New York" **** (out of ****)
Martin Scorsese once again shows us the mean streets of New York in the drama "Gangs of New York" (2002).
When Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" was released the sheep (movie critics) had a mixed reaction to it. In fact it was the first time I could remember so many "critics" criticizing a Martin Scorsese picture. There was Manhola Darhis of the New York Times who felt Scorsese had made this picture for the purpose of being able to win an Academy Award (something he had not accomplished at this time). She, in all her "wisdom", called the movie "Oscar bait". There was also New York Observer critic, Rex Reed, normally a defender of Mr. Scorsese's work, who felt the movie wasn't up to Scorsese's best.
I point this out not to "shame" the "critics" that trashed Mr. Scorsese and this film but to reinforce the belief, time serves as the ultimate critic. Great movies will be remembered and stand the test of time. Even if they weren't successful upon their release, audiences will find those movies ("It's A Wonderful Life" (1946), "Duck Soup" (1933), "The General" (1926) and "Bringing Up Baby" (1938) are a few examples). I think "Gangs of New York" is one of those movies as well. Many may not remember the greeting this film received. They will be able to judge the movie solely on the quality of the movie itself. They will not be caught up in the gossip of the day such as how the movie was originally set to be released in 2001 and was pushed back a year. Normally not a good sign. Some complained Leonardo DiCaprio wasn't "worthy" of collaborating with Mr. Scorsese and there were reports the movie was over budget. In the end though, it doesn't matter. Time has judged the movie and given it a stamp of approval.
This is not to suggest "Gangs of New York" didn't have its defenders. The movie went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations. The "movie critic" Richard Roeper called it the best movie of the year. Former Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert gave it a three-and-a-half star rating. And many praised Daniel Day-Lewis' performance.
Watching "Gangs of New York" three things strike me thematically. One, with time all is forgotten. Modern generations will forget those that lived before them and never know of their hardship. Two, man fights man, creating meaningless "gangs", fractions but the real enemy is the government. "Gangs of New York" ends with the U.S. government ordering the death of its own citizens as the poor have risen up and have said the Civil War draft is not just since the rich were able to buy their way out of it for the price of $300 (this is actual fact. Not fiction. Look it up). Three, how "Scorsese" the movie is in its themes, primarily loyalty.
"Gangs of New York" blends fact and fiction telling us the story of Irish immigration to New York and the resistance it was met with by those that didn't want "foreigners" entering their country. Too bad someone wasn't around to suggest building a wall. Which leads to another point. Nothing has changed. People are debating the same issues they have for hundreds of years and nothing will get better or change because people haven't changed. In "Gangs of New York" the Irish were the immigrants not wanted to enter the country. Today it is Mexicans and Muslims. Only "the other" has changed. The hatred remains the same.
Fighting against the Irish is Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). He "controls" the district known as the Five Points and a gang called the Natives. They are the "true Americans". Bill is initially opposed by the leader of another gang called the Dead Rabbits led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). In the film's opening sequence the two gangs will have a final conflict to decide who is the true leader of the Five Points. Vallon dies in battle at the hands of Bill, in front of Vallon's son, Amsterdam (played as an adult by Leonardo DiCaprio). Forward 16 years later and now Amsterdam wants revenge.
This leads to the most interesting dynamic of the film, the relationship between Bill and Amsterdam. Although Amsterdam is filled with hatred for Bill, Bill accepts Amsterdam into his gang and treats Amsterdam as a son. In one scene Bill makes a heartfelt speech saying as much. This creates a blurry line for Amsterdam. Can he hate this man who has been good to him? Is there good and bad in everyone? This makes Bill the most interesting character in the film. Bill is a multi dimensional character. Amsterdam had potential to be one but is shortchanged by the writers. Amsterdam isn't given the larger-than-life personality of Bill.
Within the Bill character Mr. Scorsese and screenwriters Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan and Steven Zaillian, are able to present him as a sympathetic character and then shock us by his villainous nature, brutally killing people. What makes Bill even scarier is, we understand him and in our current political climate, know people like him.
Maybe the weakest character in the movie is Jenny (Cameron Diaz) a pickpocket that Amsterdam falls in love with who had a relationship with Bill. She adds very little to the film and seems to mostly be a symbol to show a "softer" side of Bill and Amsterdam. I guess you need a female character in a movie to tell a man, just as he is about to go into battle, that war is a bad idea. Then the man will tell the woman he will come back alive. If every scene between Jenny and Amsterdam was cut out, you might even have a better movie.
There is however a great group of supporting characters including including political boss, William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), Happy Jack (John C. Reily), an Irishman who fought along side Priest Vallon and in the passing years becomes a policemen, under the thumb of Bill. And "Monk" McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), a man for hire who also fought along side Vallon and knows Amsterdam is up to something.
"Gangs of New York" is also a visual masterwork, as everything you see was created on a sound stage at Cinecitta, the famous Italian studio where Federico Fellini shot his movies. How the art-direction and set-direction didn't win an Academy Award is a mystery and a shame. It was one of the most impressive elements to me, when I first saw the movie. I still think it is one of Mr. Scorsese's best looking movies.
Now, 15 year after its release, and with the gossip of the day behind it, Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" holds up well. It's themes of political corruption, loyalty and history is the work of a passionate filmmaker. Mr. Scorsese had wanted to tell this story on the big screen for more than 20 years. If Woody Allen shows us a romanticize view of New York, Mr. Scorsese gets down to the gritty side of the city. He shows us the blood, sweat and tears that went into making New York what is it. That's what "Gangs of New York" is, a crash course in American history.
I wouldn't say this movie is as influential as Mr. Scorsese's other films, such as "GoodFellas" (1990), "Raging Bull" (1980) or "Taxi Driver" (1976) but "Gangs of New York" is a masterpiece nevertheless. I called it one of the best films of 2002 (I placed it in the number three spot) and declared it one of the best films of the first decade of the 21st century. Watching it again, my mind has not changed.
"Gangs of New York" is a rewarding experience, worthy of multiple viewings. Daniel Day-Lewis gives the most effective performance and is in some ways, the center of the movie. Time has not dulled this movie. If anything, it has proven to be a "timeless" movie, still relevant today.