NOW PLAYING: Gangs of New York

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

Hollywood is a strange animal indeed. Everything depends upon the almighty box office, except when it doesn't. Your movie can make hundreds of millions of dollars and still be considered a failure, or it can fail miserably and be considered a success. You're the hot new thing one minute, straight to video the next. The more popular a film is, the more people seem to hate it. And yet, growing in the midst of this contradictory mess are a few select directors and actors whose very existence seem to suggest that there really is art at the center of it all. People like Spike Lee, Stanley Kubrick, and Martin Scorsese, whose movies nearly always lose money, but instead of being relegated to the trash heap of history, they are held up as icons. That prevailing attitude, as you might imagine, gives the director in question a great deal of freedom. He doesn't really have to worry about making a huge financial success, because he's not going to lose his job over the outcome. This freedom leads to more groundbreaking, amazingly realized films, which usually flop at the box office, leading one to wonder whether it is money or the general public's lack of taste that has ruined Hollywood. With all that in mind, I have to ask the question: why wasn't Scorsese's Gangs of New York better than it was?

Gangs, the story of rival bands of lowlifes competing for territory in Civil War-era New York City, seems like a can't miss proposition for Scorsese, the man who has outlined modern gangs better than anyone, aside from Francis Ford Coppola. With films like Mean Streets, Goodfellas, and Casino, Martin Scorsese gave us a view of the modern mafia that is both withering and fascinating. It seems only natural that he would be the one to shine that same light on some of the mafia's earliest American predecessors. In fact, it took Scorsese nearly thirty years to bring his vision to the screen. Studios with cold feet, overblown budgets, and script problems were but a few of the obstacles inherent in adapting the 20's era novel Gangs is based on. Now that it is finally here, I am afraid Scorsese's passion for his subject got in the way of his storytelling.

The story begins in the mid-1840's, with a street fight reminiscent of Braveheart. The Dead Rabbits are battling The Natives for control of Five Points, a confluence of five low-rent districts into one very dangerous hive of pickpockets, crooks, and killers. Where I think Scorsese got sidetracked is in that very homage to Braveheart. He seemed to be trying to make this a story of good and evil, a genre best left to those concerned with box office success, not to those who can make original, insightful films. The Natives were cruel and quarrelsome, racist and intolerant of the rising immigrant tide. The immigrants, on the other hand, are just trying to get along in this new land of opportunity. While I'm sure some of both of these stereotypes actually existed, Scorsese sacrifices true understanding and historical accuracy for cheap sentiment.

At the forefront of an amazingly talented group of actors and actresses showcased in this film are Daniel Day-Lewis as the violent and conflicted Bill "the butcher" Cutter, and Jim Broadbent as the delightfully corrupt Boss Tweed. You'll note I didn't mention Leonardo DiCaprio, who does a fine job, but tends toward cliche. He is much better in Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can. Lewis, however, with one glass eye and an accent thick enough to match his huge mustache, growls and showboats his way to a likely Oscar nomination. Some might consider his performance over the top, but you can't take your eyes off him. Broadbent, similarly, fills his character to the brim, though without all the camp he employed in last year's Moulin Rouge, These two were standouts, but Gangs has acting in spades. It is one of the high points of the film.

If only acting were enough. At nearly three hours, Scorsese's epic wanders dangerously out of focus at several points during the film. True, the last fifteen minutes do bring it together and make for a well done ending, but with multiple story lines and competing themes, Gangs can be a little hard to follow. I feel like Scorsese had a lot to say; about the tensions between the native born Americans and the invading waves of immigrants, about the huge dichotomy between the haves and the have nots, about how corruption became intractably intertwined with our government, and about how the Draft Riots of 1863 nearly tore New York City apart. In his attempt to hit all the points, each one is sadly diminished, to the degradation of the whole. Gangs of New York is not a bad film; it has beautiful production design, great acting, some amazing battle scenes, and so much potential. Unfortunately Gangs has to do battle with itself for screentime, and the audience comes out the loser. Grade: B

Gangs of New York is rated R for violence, sexual situations, and language.

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