Cinema Signal:

Journey of Hope:
The Story of Irish Immigration to America

. "Gangs of New York"

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 heretofore exhibited.

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 Bill.

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 for.

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 the vessel.

"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.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

The Soundtrack Album


Opinion Section
Comments from readers:
Very well written
I agree with the review & it adds meaning to the movie for me
Rating: 10

It seemed to be semi sci fi. Like the vampire teeth on the Irish woman. It was too violent. Daniel Day Lewis's character was too exaggerated. However, he was the best actor. Leo Di Caprio can't act. What about when he got stabbed and branded on his face. He still came up pretty boy! I thought firing the cannon balls into the five points was silly.

                                                      ~~ Norma 

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