This is a movie I wanted to enjoy. It has strong characterizations, the
important theme of prejudice in early America, a richness in the detailing of
the city during these fretful times, love, hate, and dramatic clashes between
archtypical enemies. I did enjoy it for the first two acts, despite a
questionable character development and other flaws, but the third act jumps
almost into another dimension. You recognize it's the same movie because
it's the same team of actors but you wonder because it seems to have moved
in a radical new direction.
It starts in a slum district of 1862 New York called Five Points where two
gangs are duking it out with knives and axes. We're introduced first to the
Irish faction, who emerge from a church to engage in the rumble. Led by
priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), with his young son Amsterdam at his side, the
newcomers are there to establish their rights in their adopted country.
The opposing gang is comprised of self-righteous, intolerant native born
Americans and they are led by world-class bigot, William "Bill the Butcher"
Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) (how bereft of imagination it is to name a butcher
character something like "Cutting" -- sad, sad). Bill is, in fact, a butcher
and his shop is the gang hangout. But he's a butcher in the violence
department even more. He's a murderous psychopath with a huge mouth who
carves people up as easily as he does animal carcasses and knows a thing or
two about razor sharp knives and deadliest kill points.
His leadership is tantamount to a political office on the district level and
he's careful to play this angle for its ability to keep him unpunished for
his evil deeds and corrupt ways. Besides, corruption plays well with William
"Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) who runs Tammany Hall like his personal feifdom,
making deals with the likes of Bill the Butcher for the Irish vote.
Bill's gang of Americans want anyone who has come from a foreign land to leave,
and this initial face-off expresses all the hatred and prejudice that was
rampant during this time in the nation's history. The dramatic exaggerations
are so great, though, that we should not be tempted to take what we see here
as literal fact. It's a yarn with a basis in the background facts.
Bill kills Vallon. Young Amsterdam is taken to an orphanage and returns 16
years later (Leonardo DiCaprio) to Four Points with vengeance in his heart.
He needs to get into the circle that protects Bill so as to gain the
opportunity to avenge his father. On the way to that goal he gets
sidetracked and winds up proving himself a trusty and valiant soldier for
Bill -- even aborting an attempt on his life -- and we get the sense that
he's forgotten his primary mission.
It takes a betrayal to put him back on track. Amsterdam's close buddy
Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas) is hurt by Jenny Everdeane's (Cameron Diaz)
preference for Amsterdam over himself and informs Bill that his beloved
disciple is Vallon's son, forcing Amsterdam into confrontation mode as though
he's awakened from a dream. To accomodate this renewal, Amsterdam suddenly
takes on leadership qualities among his fellow Irish, qualities he has not
A big rise in entertainment value is injected into this tale when Amsterdam
crosses path with the expert pickpocket and queen of fraud, Jenny Everdeane.
From the beginning there are sparks, but both try to dispel any such
suggestion of attraction by disporting themselves as natural enemies. Only
love keeps intruding and, after a failed attempt to express it physically,
they're put together during a dance and it becomes a match made in a
maelstrom of surrounding violence.
In the third act, the dramas playing out among the individuals become
immersed into a larger historical and political context, like amoebas trying
to separate. From out of nowhere in the rambling scenario Leo is deciding
with Boss Tweed who is going to run for sheriff. This seems to be sprung on
us out of a desire by the director to give Brendan Gleeson his due, else why
cast him in such a part as Walter "Monk" McGinn who has been set up as a bit
of a loose cannon in Priest Vallon's small army? He's been lurking on the
periphery of the action long enough. So now, as in any TV series, he gets
his story arc.
This evolves into a riot in which political scalawags are attacked by the mob
and widespread destruction threatens anarchy on the island of New York. In
this tableau Bill and Amsterdam manage to have their final duel, seeming now
to come as a side issue to the broader context that prevails. Jenny has
threatened to leave for California because (we take it) she can't stomach the
likelihood that her love, Amsterdam, is going to be cut apart with cutlery by
Finally, the isle of Manhattan morphs decade by decade, to a scene of the
city in which the World Trade Towers dominate the skyline, in what seems an
almost incongruous attempt to give meaning to the film by pointing out the
relationship of the historical context to the current realities. In the
whole last act there is a rush to reach that point. Not that there's
anything wrong with making the point, but its haste fragments the film with
what comes across as an afterthought.
By this time and after these hurried manipulations of the story line, I
couldn't help thinking of another great saga that became the classic
embarrassment in screen history, "Heaven's Gate." Despite some fairly
consistent critical condemnation, however, "Gangs of New York" is not likely
to be that kind of flop despite some thinking along those lines. There's
just enough size and swagger about it to engage, enough chemistry between
Diaz and DiCaprio to attract, though there's certainly much to make allowance
One criticism that has seemed to rise up is that Daniel Day-Lewis goes
"over-the-top in his portrayal of Bill the Butcher. For me, it wasn't so much
"over-the-top" as that there's so much of him. While he probably should be
given a pat on the back for playing it big and exaggerated, recognizing that
you have to put large furniture in a large house, his dominance should
probably be considered a story-telling weakness, though not one that sinks
"Less is more" is not a thought that seems to enter the Scorcese
framework. If it had, the jarring awkwardness of the third act and a trimmer
running time might have left us with a more disciplined piece of filmmaking
and a more concise expression of themes. Martin Scorcese is not likely to
understand how to prune a tree, where you have to cut off some limbs to
direct energy into the main branches.
~~ Jules Brenner