Gangs of New York (2002)    2 Stars

“America Was Born In The Streets.”

Gangs of New York (2002)
Gangs of New York (2002)


Director: Martin Scorsese

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day-Lewis

Synopsis: In 1863, Amsterdam Vallon returns to the Five Points area of New York City seeking revenge against Bill the Butcher, his father’s killer.




Celebrated director Martin Scorsese found a unique setting and topic with the turbulent 19th-Century street politics of New York’s notorious Five Points district, and had Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan’s screenplay been anywhere near as vivid as Dante Ferretti’s production design, Gangs of New York could have been a masterpiece.   Unfortunately, despite its obvious ambitions, the movie is let down by a pedestrian revenge plot involving largely one-dimensional characters.   Daniel Day-Lewis (Sunday, Bloody Sunday, Gandhi), at least, delivers a memorable performance, even if ‘Butcher’ Bill Cutting does at times put one in mind of the moustache-twirling villains commonly found in silent movies, but Leonardo DiCaprio (Django Unchained, The Wolf of Wall Street) and Cameron Diaz (Gambit, The Counselor) as a pair ne’er-do-wells destined to be lovers despite their mutual antipathy are given few opportunities to make an impression.

DiCaprio is Amsterdam Vallon, the son of a religious gang leader (Liam Neeson – Non-Stop, Run All Night) who was killed by his rival, Butcher Bill, in a gang war when Amsterdam was a small boy.   After a childhood spent in a prison-like orphanage, Amsterdam returns to Five Points to avenge the murder of his father.   Bill is now the big man of the district, as indicated by the ridiculous height of his top hat compared to those of his associates, and is feared and respected in equal measure.   Thanks to his strategic alliance with the irredeemably corrupt Tammany Hall politician Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent – The Iron Lady, Big Game), he controls life in the volatile melting pot of Hell’s Kitchen.   Having inveigled his way into Cutting’s circle of trust, Amsterdam finds his determination to kill Bill wavering because of the genuine respect in which the Butcher holds Priest Vallon’s memory, and the fatherly interest his father’s killer takes in the young man whom he doesn’t realise is the son of his old rival.   This conflict of emotions proves to be the one aspect of an otherwise ordinary plot capable of taking us somewhere interesting, but is repeatedly sidelined by the tepid romance between Amsterdam and the comely pickpocket, Jenny Everdeane.

These two strands provide precious little plot for a running time of nearly three hours, with the political machinations of Tweed given equally short shrift.   Of course, a paucity of plot doesn’t necessarily have to be a film’s fatal flaw if its characters are given sufficient depth and complexity, but those found in Gangs of New York lack colour of any description.   Cutting might be memorable, but that’s thanks purely to Day-Lewis’s interpretation of him.   Bill’s unnerving trick of tapping his glass eye with the tip of his knife was the actor’s idea, and is a rare example of the kind of small but rich detail the movie so badly lacks.

Scorsese’s direction is as polished as ever, relying less on Goodfellas-style visual flourishes (apart from the eye-catching, eccentrically edited mass brawl in which Priest Vallon is killed) and more on a concerted attempt to immerse his audience in the hellish world of mid-19th Century Hell’s Kitchen.   Ferretti’s production design helps immeasurably to capture the atmosphere of the New York slums, but everything looks a little too clean to be entirely convincing.   Five Points is supposed to be a kind of hell on earth – at least to our pampered 21st-Century sensibilities – but it really doesn’t look like such a bad place.   It seems strange to be writing this about a Scorsese movie, but there seems little doubt that the world and politics of Gangs of New York may possibly have been better suited to a TV mini-series which could have devoted time to developing character and situations in depth – something which Gangs of New York fails to do despite that running time.

(Reviewed 28th December 2015)

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