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Even Meaner Streets

 

Gangs of New York

Martin Scorsese, USA, 2002

Rating: 4.3

 

 

Posted: December 25, 2002

By Laurence Station

The drama surrounding the making of Gangs of New York could have easily overshadowed the final product. After all, director Martin Scorsese's three-decade quest to adapt Herbert Asbury's 1928 book to the screen -- not to mention the storied behind-the-scenes meddling of Miramax studio overlord Harvey Weinstein -- is the stuff of great copy. So it's a testament to Scorsese that his epic tale of warring nativist Anglos and immigrant Irish gangs set around the 1863 New York City Draft Riots wins out in the end. That Scorsese's vision triumphs despite a disjointed narrative, sub-par love story and uneven performances -- sustaining its intimate human element while strongly making its larger point regarding American cities as melting pot crucibles that ultimately forged the country's identity -- is more remarkable still. This is the same turf the director's been exploring his entire career, the world of Mean Streets and Taxi Driver -- life at street level, where the strong are swiftly separated from the weak and the price to make a better way for oneself is often paid for in blood.

Gangs stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon, an Irish-American whose father was killed sixteen years earlier by William Cutting -- a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) -- in a street fight between old-guard Anglo gangs and the Irish Dead Rabbits. After being released from an orphanage, young Amsterdam returns to the slums of his childhood seeking revenge against the Butcher, who has consolidated his power over the years to become the most imposing crime boss in lower Manhattan's Five Points. Eschewing his last name to avoid suspicion, Amsterdam falls in with Bill's outfit and is quickly taken under the ruthless Butcher's wing. Complicating Amsterdam's revenge plans is his involvement with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a fetching pickpocket who is also close to Bill.

Scorsese takes this stock love triangle/revenge tale and makes it seem fresh and yet archetypal at the same time. This is due in part to the powerful dynamic between Amsterdam and Bill: Amsterdam wants to kill the Butcher, but in doing so risks destroying his own identity. Bill took Amsterdam's father from him (the mother is never mentioned), robbed him of his childhood and, ultimately, becomes a surrogate father. In one poignant and telling scene, Amsterdam saves Bill from an assassin's bullet, only to weep over the consequences of this action, underlining the conflict between avenging his father's death and losing his new father figure.

DiCaprio's at his best before Amsterdam attempts to murder Bill -- angry yet vulnerable, eager to prove himself yet filled with self-doubt. Once he turns against the Butcher, setting in motion the inevitable showdown, DiCaprio proves less effective, unable to establish Amsterdam as a convincing rival to the brutal Cutting; one would be hard pressed to put money down on the waifish Amsterdam against the wily gangleader. A flawless Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, manages to impart his truly despicable character with a real sense of honor, loyalty and regret, without once sacrificing Bill's edge. There's little doubt that the Butcher could kill anyone who crosses him in the blink of an eye.

Diaz, meanwhile, does a decent job with Jenny, though scenes such as one where she compares scars with DiCaprio undermine attempts at revealing deeper shading to her character, coming across instead as artificial and forced. Renee Russo and Mel Gibson did a much better job with the same shtick in Lethal Weapon 3, the gag being sexier and more appropriate to the subject matter at hand.

Of course, such scenes aren't Diaz's fault. Three talented writers worked on the long-gestating Gangs screenplay -- Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence), Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me) and Steven Zaillian (Black Hawk Down, Schindler's List) -- and it shows, from the machinations of Tammany Hall's William "Boss" Tweed (an excellent Jim Broadbent), who sought votes by any means necessary, to the Irish immigrants forcibly conscripted into the Union Army fresh off the boat.

It's Scorsese's deft handling of these various threads that ultimately saves Gangs from failure; his climax fulfills the film's grander ambitions, wonderfully meshing the showdown between Amsterdam and the Butcher with the violent riots, and then concluding the tale with a poignant image of the city transforming and prospering over the years. Gangs the film, like its parent book about a city dealing with growing pains and multi-ethnic-and-racial integration, is messy, chaotic and overpowering. Part of that chaos stems from the obvious concessions Scorsese seems to have made regarding the film's scope and flow; hopefully a DVD release will either reveal the director's definitive cut, or include deleted scenes that add substance to the already rich and varied tapestry.

Credit is due to the director's technical team as well: Michael Ballhaus's camerawork is appropriately grand without losing the human face of the film, while the score by Howard Shore (Lord of the Rings) nicely emphasizes the film's violent world without upstaging the action. Kudos should also be given to all involved in making the sets built at Cinecitta in Rome a perfect stand-in for the New York of the 1840s-60s, fully realized in all of its wretched squalor.

Gangs of New York, then, is a near-miss masterpiece. Despite structural and character flaws, it capably avoids capsizing under the bloated weight of its enormous ambitions, transcending its narrow historical timeframe to speak to a 21st-century America still wrestling with complex and volatile issues of race, ethnicity and poverty.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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