Review: “Gangs of New York”

When it comes to music and movies I’m far more loyal to product rather than manufacturer – meaning I don’t really have a group of bands or filmmakers I would call my favourite, rather I judge each film production/song on what’s been said rather than whose saying it.

Kubrick, Spielberg, Coppola, etc. – people have their favourite directors and admittedly each has produced at least one film I personally would call an absolute fave of mine but none of them I feel a particular loyalty to and I rarely wait in eager anticipation to check out what they’ve done next. Martin Scorsese is one of those kind, a filmmaker with a fiercely loyal audience and a collection of films which have become acclaimed around the world.

Right from the start, ‘Gangs’ has always been under pressure. In many people’s minds this was to be Scorsese’s magnum opus, the film that would get him recognition both financially and critically to an extent that would rival what “Gladiator” did for Ridley Scott’s career. As a result there’s a general overall disappointment level from critics who’ve come out saying the film is good, not great and expressing disappointment. As someone who went in with zero expectation though I was pleasantly surprised. Granted ‘Gangs’ is marked by some very visible flaws and choppy editing, but overall its a generally engaging and entertaining crowd pleaser which will satisfy the mainstream public probably a lot more than fans of the director’s previous films.

This is mostly due to the story which is sadly nothing particularly original – young man grows up with one goal in mind, to take revenge against his father’s killer by conning his way into becoming the man’s most trusted confidante. Scorsese has focussed a lot of his energy into getting the details and look of the period just right, and like it or not the criticism can’t be levelled at the production design which is successfully gritty and unique at the same time whilst a combination of massive sets and effective backdrops give the picture a truly large and epic scale which many filmmakers still haven’t got a hang of.

Maybe its because there was so much concern over the little things that some of the big things slipped past us such as a compelling narrative. Even at nearly three hours in length, the film feels like its missing very large chunks of footage and backstory so what’s left whilst not being the ‘Cliff Notes’ version, is so rushed in places that many will be confused by what’s happening – the intricacies of the various different gangs and the reasoning behind the all out riots towards the end are left unexplored and for the most part unexplained. Other elements seem just badly co-ordinated such as the opening fight which goes from bloodless and rather staged looking at first through to a bloody mess by the end. Even a ‘limping victim’ scene at the end is quite laughable.

Performances are solid throughout despite some not exactly convincing attempts at Irish accents. Daniel Day-Lewis is the one who easily manages to steal the show as ‘Bill The Butcher’, an over the top charicature of a gang lord with a look (pants which would make your average golfer scream bad taste) and Brooklyn-accented voice along almost DeNiro lines (“are you talking to me?”) that makes you wonder why we never get to see him tie a damsel in distress to some railway tracks. He brings energy and the proper level of malice needed to the role which, whilst not exactly fear inspiring, does have you believing he will follow through on his nasty convictions.

Both DiCaprio and Henry Thomas pretty much walk through their roles, and whilst I like Diaz’s character she herself is only a serviceable choice for the part. Jim Broadbent and John C. Reilly both delight in their short performances as a corrupt politician and rather sinister cop. Its a shame really only the colourful characters stick out rather than the somewhat bland heroic leads for they carry a lot of the overly burdened film – which is why Lewis’ part though stagey still immediately grabs your attention. DiCaprio can get away with a childish petulance, but the efforts to turn him into an almost political leader towards the end are laughable – much like the inevitable showdown itself, you know its coming but by the time you get there your wondering why.

The score includes a banal new U2 song, though that’s offset by solid orchestral pieces including the opening scene tune – a creepy march comprised of rumbling drums and an off-key flute. A rougher cut with an extra 30-40 minutes has been floating around apparently and I would very much like to see that restored on the DVD version when it hits stores maybe then we could have a better idea of what Scorsese was trying to say with this flick. He’s authentically recreated the time and feel of the period and given us what is on the surface an enjoyable epic, but he never goes into detail as to why this was a story he had to tell.