Gangs of New York (Martin Scorsese, 2002)

Glancing over some of the press-release reviews for Gangs of New York, and then watching the film itself, one might struggle to see what all the fuss is about. Everyone seems to describe it as a “flawed masterpiece”. If a film is as flawed as this one, surely that prevents it from being a masterpiece?

People still sing the praises of this film, so I’ll start by picking it apart before shedding some light on the good bits. (There are good bits. We are talking about Martin Scorsese, after all.) Firstly, a broad point. Everything about this film is vintage Marty. The stealthy tracking shots, the voiceover, the tortured protagonist, street-wise dialogue (anachronistic profanity included), perversion of Christianity… he even outdoes himself in the violence department. All this looks good on paper, and it has worked to brilliant effect in the past. But what Gangs looks like on the screen is Scorsese splashing one of his more bankable formulae onto a massively expensive canvas. A $100-million canvas, to be precise, which features finely detailed vistas of Irish immigrants and their discontent at being faced by a bunch of Nativist Protestants. The one unpredictable thing about this film is the great director forsaking his integrity. Fair enough – he needs the money to finance his artistic, uncommercial films: his Kunduns, his Age of Innocences. But when was the last uncommercial film he made? Since the ‘90s, his films have been nothing but hits. There are good hits, and there are bad hits. Gangs falls into the latter category.

Surprisingly, these men had never even heard of golf.
Surprisingly, these men had never even heard of golf.

If there’s anyone in Hollywood that knows how to film violence and turn it into art (real art, that is, not pop-art like Tarantino), it’s Scorsese. The dark, thick blood dripping off the ropes in Raging Bull will be forever etched into my mind, while who can forget Billy Batts being stomped to death in GoodFellas? But for the last few days I’ve been trying to banish from my mind the unpleasant horror of seeing two gangs engaged in mutual massacre to the strains of… U2. Just because the band comprises Irishmen obsessed by America does not make them eligible material for scoring a film that wants to be taken seriously. Which breeds the question: does the film want to be taken seriously? Scorsese himself doesn’t seem to know. Old photographs and newspaper cuttings can only lend so much veracity to such an ostensibly Hollywood-conceived tale. The characters, with the possible exception of Jenny Everdeane (the foxy pickpocket played by Cameron Diaz), are all stereotypes with whom we’re already familiar. Having one-dimensional characters can work – There Will Be Blood – but it doesn’t here, because the film strives for complexity. And the cast is far too star-studded: characters that don’t even get speaking roles are played by the likes of Eddie Marsan, undermining the concept of dirt-poor immigrants. Showpieces like Gangs show off their pieces in far too piecemeal a manner, and Harvey Weinstein’s supposedly sacrilegious edits can’t be held wholly responsible for this mess.

The casting isn’t a strong point, either. Why Jim Broadbent? Just because he’s ‘foppish’? And Gary Lewis’ character is ethnically confused, but the fact that Lewis is Scottish is not ironic, it’s just lazy casting. Leonardo DiCaprio is perpetually looking perfect; it seems ‘being pretty’ was his job for several years. Diaz is good enough, but her role isn’t too complex, while Brendan Gleeson was just an obvious choice. This is another thing that makes the film boring. The accents are just inconsistent and faintly ridiculous. I’ll get to Day-Lewis later.

You'd better, boy.
You’d better, boy.

The themes are typically Scorsesian, but unfortunately he tries to explore too many of them – America’s violent conception, immigration, revenge, redemption, guilt, inner conflict, social forces and moral codes – and none of them does he explore particularly subtly. The price we pay for watching these themes being beautifully, explicitly (and admittedly imaginatively) laid out for us is to not have to use our brains, which is usually the most rewarding aspect of cinema. Here we get Pure Entertainment. This can lead to tedium, particularly if the Entertainment is nearly 3 hours long.

The plot is standard fare: DiCaprio plays a mole trying to penetrate the inner circle of a crazed but influential psychopath (The Departed, anyone?). Boy meets girl, boy plays hard-to-get (thus attracting girl), girl happens to belong to psychopath but this doesn’t matter because boy saves psychopath’s life in a twist that’s “bloody Shakespearean” (a quote from an admittedly great line – I won’t spoil it for you here). Then… psychopath outfoxes mole, obeys Code of Honour, and pays the price later in an epic, chaotic and violent showdown. The plot plods along until the inevitable denouement (which does a feature an excellent touch – something to do with an elephant), with the only things saving it from dullness being the scenery and Daniel Day-Lewis, who chews said scenery. When he is absent from the screen, one awaits his reappearance like an excited child on Christmas morning.

"Gimme that scenery, boy. I'm hungry."
“Gimme that scenery, boy. I’m hungry.”

Sometimes, predictability can be a good thing. For example, going to see a film starring Daniel Day-Lewis guarantees you at least one great performance. If Gangs can be deemed worth sitting through, it’s because Day-Lewis delivers the goods; perhaps not his best performance, but immensely entertaining nonetheless. His ad-libbing and perfectly executed lines make his magnetic performance the best thing about the film by far.

It would be impossible to ignore the direction and the cinematography: we’re obviously in the hands of a director who knows what he’s doing, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus captures the scenes (all well-lit) beautifully. Directly preceding the ridiculous opening battle, the tracking shots of the immigrants living in a honeycomb-like structure are superb. The set- and costume-designs are immaculate, and the world that is so wonderfully brought to life is, apart from the surreal violence, a credible one. It was astutely described as “both Darwinian and Dickensian” by Philip French.

Sadly, French’s review was, on the whole, far too positive. Scorsese’s ambition here is undeniable, but the mess produced here does not do justice to it. Perhaps without the edits it would be a better film, but it’s overly long anyway, and its inherent predictability would surely lead to a snore-fest of even more gargantuan proportions.

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