Film review: Gangs of New York (2002)

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Martin Scorsese recreates the birth of New York City in sprawling epic
By D.M. Terrace, Special to the Voice

In Gangs of New York, Martin Scorsese has taken a blood-and-scandal soaked non-fiction book from 1928 and brought much of it to the screen as the backdrop to a quite simple revenge drama. Or is it the other way around? This is a movie so jam-packed with detail and history (some real, some pastiche) that at all moments it threatens to swamp the characters. Most critics so far — Kenneth Turan, especially — have balked at this elephantine film, calling it interminable and obscure. But I quite liked the excess of it. In its portrait of a city, the film captures the density, confusion, and lawlessness therein. As an adaptation of a book that is really one juicy, violent tale after another, it succeeds largely because it has such a simple story as Hollywood wrapping.

The film opens with a large fight between two rival gangs that control the “Five Points” area of 1846 Manhattan. After seeing his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), killed by Butcher Bill (Daniel Day-Lewis), Vallon’s son flees and vows vengeance, turning up 16 years later, post-orphanage, now completely unknown and looking like Leonard DiCaprio. He returns to Five Points and joins Bill’s gang (now in complete control of the area) to get close enough to kill him. What unfolds is an odd father-son relationship between Butcher Bill and his young charge, who now calls himself Amsterdam. At one crucial point he even saves Bill’s life from an assassin’s bullet, later beating his fists against a wall, having realized his own inaction. (Just as one is thinking of the Hamlet parallels and expecting DiCaprio to burst into soliloquy, a minor character name-drops Shakespeare. Too clever, methinks.)

Vengeance is a long time coming, so the film meanwhile creates a historical context that includes Boss Tweed (the always excellent Jim Broadbent) and Tammany Hall, abolitionists, and P.T. Barnum, and culminates in the draft riots of 1863, which sent the city up in flames. This final set-piece is the kind of thrilling work that Scorsese excels in; also notable is a beautiful long take that shows Irish immigrants disembarking in New York Harbor and immediately being conscripted for the Civil War, walking down the dock to board a south-bound boat (which is simultaneously unloading coffins of dead soldiers). On the other hand, Cameron Diaz’s Jenny seems to be in the picture so DiCaprio can have a love interest and to balance the overwhelming maleness of the film.

Gangs of New York is reminiscent of the recent spate of books that document a city’s life as biography (Peter Ackroyd’s London: a Biography; Alexander Horne’s Seven Ages of Paris). Scorsese shows us — capping it off with a montage of New York skylines over the years — that traces of the young, angry New York are still there, barely buried, still bleeding.

This review originally ran on this date in the Goleta Valley Voice

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