A film review by Craig J. Koban




RANK: # 2



5th Anniversary Retrospective Review

2002, R, 165 mins.

Amsterdam Vallon: Leonardo Dicaprio / Bill The Butcher: Daniel Day-Lewis / Jenny Everdeane: Cameron Diaz / Priest Vallon: Liam Neeson / "Boss" Tweed: Jim Broadbent / Happy Jack: John C. Reilly / Johnny: Henry Thomas / Monk: Brendan Gleeson / P.T. Barnum: Roger Ashton-Griffiths

Directed by Martin Scorsese / Written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan

It is the pundits that liked to pontificate on the much-publicized production woes of Martin Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK that also overlooked its strong merits.  Surely, the making of this 2002 Best Picture nominee could have been filmed as a fascinating documentary all on its own.  The film was arguably Scorsese’s largest scale and ambitious work of his career at that point, but it was also his most beleaguered. 

If you’re willing to look past its problematic history, then GANGS OF NEW YORK is a grand, sprawling, and terrifically realized historical epic.  It’s not Scorsese at his most commanding and masterful (it certainly is not as “great” as TAXI DRIVER, RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, or CASINO), but it nevertheless was one of 2002’s most impressive features, and his esoteric fingerprints still are felt in every frame.  Watching it again it's easy to see the man behind the camera as a rare pedigree of filmmaker that shows his love and understanding of the cinema.

The film may have came out during our current decade, but Scorsese envisioned making GANGS OF NEW YORK back in the early 1970’s, just as his career was blossoming.  After reading about the time period in a book while house sitting in Long Island he became enamored with the brutal and blood drenched history of his favourite hometown.  Originally conceived as his follow-up film to 1976’s TAXI DRIVER, Scorsese thought of making GANGS OF NEW YORK by casting the UK punk band The Clash.  Plans with the group fell through, but Scorsese’s determination still held strong and started gunning for a 1980-1981 release date.  He planned on casting Malcolm McDowell as the film’s young hero, Amsterdam Vallon, but later settled on Robert DeNiro, his TAXI DRIVER star.

However, the nail in GANGS’ production coffin came in the form of HEAVEN’S GATE (1980), which emerged at the time as one of the biggest financial disasters of its time.  With most studios weary of giving directors huge resources to make their “dream historical projects” without a guarantee of success, Scorsese’s GANGS was put on hold.  The thought of ambitious and lavishly mounted historical dramas just did not sit well with the suits in Hollywood.  It would take over a decade for Scorsese to return to his pet project.

By the late 1990’s - and after the production of BRINGING OUT THE DEAD - he would be able to finally approach GANGS again.  Certainly, the studios supported high cost historical films to a larger degree (films like 1995’S BRAVEHEART and 1996’s TITANIC won many Oscars, including BEST PICTURE), and visual effects technology had soared far beyond 1970’s means.  Scorsese approached DeNiro again about the film, but he was too old to play the young Amsterdam.  Instead, Scorsese offered him the part of the film’s vile and sociopathic antagonist, Bill the Butcher, a part that he would have had a field day with. 

Unfortunately, Scorsese was unwavering in his desire to make GANGS on large-scale sets in Cinecitt, Rome.  Not wanting to spend what would be several months out of the US, DeNiro respectfully declined to be in the film.  Scorsese then went to Daniel Day Lewis (his AGE OF INNOCENCE star), an inspired – and gutsy – choice considering that the actor was in a self-imposed exile at the time from film acting altogether.  Lewis agreed and the production went forward.  Scorsese then cast Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam, which would be the first of three film collaborations that have carried them both through to their most recent work, THE DEPARTED.  It was the beginning of one of the finest director/actor collaborations of the decade, mirroring the Scorsese/DeNiro efforts of the past.

The production was the most logistically challenging of Scorsese’s career.  Yes, the director has made epic films in the past, but more on a character and narrative level.  GANGS OF NEW YORK marked the first time that the filmmaker would attempt a work with a Hollywood blockbuster budget (its started at $83 million and flew past $100 million, which dwarfed his previous productions), not to mention that it had expensive sets, sumptuous costumes, and massive visual effects set pieces.   Certainly, GANGS OF NEW YORK is the type of “big” and expensive production that seemed like the complete antithesis to the typical Scorsese film.  It felt more like the film that one of his fellow filmmaker colleagues (that also arose in the 1970’s) like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas could have made. 

It’s somewhat puzzling that the press seemed to focus on the expense of the film as if it represented Scorsese “selling out” or desperately grasping for that always-elusive Oscar statue.  However, those people forget that Scorsese is a scholar of the movies and desires to make genre films where and when applicable.  GANGS OF NEW YORK feels familiar to Scorsese-ites (it's about lowlifes in New York), but the whole atmosphere is different.  As a result, GANGS feels simultaneously new and recognizable. 

After several tiring and grueling months of principle photography, Miramax Films longed to have GANGS OF NEW YORK set for a Christmas 2001 release, which is prime cinematic real estate for garnering a film for Oscar consideration.  Trailers for the film were created and released to cineplexes as early as June of that year and movie posters graced lobbies with taglines that stated “Christmas 2001.”  However, the film was postponed for its 2001 release at the last moment so that it could be more adequately re-tooled and polished for a future release date. 

Details here have always been a bit sketchy here.  Some critics pointed out that Scorsese’ original cut (lasting over an hour longer than the eventual theatrical cut) was a masterpiece that was destroyed by the greedy impulses of Miramax.  Others (Scorsese himself among them) emphasized that the film needed work – re-shoots and edits – to make it a stronger film.  Scorsese has gone on record many times stating that the GANGS that was released was always his vision for the film.  Regardless of the details, GANGS was put on hold and was eventually released in the winter of 2002. A full year after it was supposed to be released.  No doubt, some pundits were probably wondering if Scorsese had made his own HEAVEN’S GATE.

Not to worry, because GANGS OF NEW YORK is pure Scorsese - a historical drama set in New York between the 1840’s and the Civil War that feels like it was written by bruised knuckled historians with their own blood.  It’s a revisionist costume epic in the sense that it’s not clean and pretty to look at.  GANGS OF NEW YORK feels more attune to showcasing the history of one of the most famous cities in America as being violent, oppressive, and chaotic - a city divided by “tribes” and made in the “forge of hell”. 

People are divided everywhere.  Rival gangs despise one another and duke it out on the streets in broad daylight with every weapon imaginable (knives, axes, swords, maces, bayonets, etc.).  Police departments and fire brigades also battle each other, unwanted immigrants and blacks are attacked in the streets and maliciously tortured and killed, and even the nation’s own Navel ships hurl cannon balls at the city, specifically targeting war protestors that are against the draft for the Civil War.  This is not a glossy and vibrant recreation of history.  Scorsese’s approach here is beyond "warts and all" and shows a segment of the country’s history at its most unsavory and grotesque.  It’s like Charles Dickens on heroin.

The opening shots are extraordinary, as Scorsese effortlessly pans in an opening shot to reveal an awesome catacomb set that is carved out of the rock of Manhattan.  This is where the undesirables live and they are led by an Irish priest named Vallon (the commanding and authoritative Liam Neeson).  Vallon prepares himself for a gang battle to come with the solemnity of a funeral wake.  He dresses, puts on his protective collar, and briefs his young son Amsterdam on what is to come.  Then Scorsese follows Vallon through the catacombs as he gathers up his troops – The Dead Rabbits – to journey out in the snow covered streets of The Five Points of Lower Manhattan to do battle with an American-born gang called The Nativists (whom all feel are the only rightful inhabitants of America).  They are led by Bill The Butcher (the unforgettable Daniel Day Lewis), certainly one of the most monstrous and scary villains of modern movies. 

Interestingly, the two rival gangs don’t instantly battle it out.  They don’t respect one another, but they respect the rules of combat.  The words that Vallon and Bill choose when they face off have precision and a hateful, vindictive poetry to them.  Bill lashes out, “At my challenge, by the ancient laws of combat, we are met at this chosen ground, to settle for good and all who holds sway over the five points: us natives...or the foreign hordes defiling it.”  Vallon responds, “By the ancient laws of combat, I accept the challenge of the so called 'natives.' They plague our people at every turn, but from this day out, they shall plague us no more. For let it be known, that the hand that tries to strike us from this land shall be swiftly cut down.”  Then, in pure animalistic fashion, the two gangs confront in an opening action scene of barbarism and wanton hatred.  By the time the battle is over, the snow has been dyed red from all of the blood, as countless bodies – and body parts – lay in the snow.  There is not just a Civil War in America; there is an even bloodier one within the streets of New York.

The Dead Rabbits saw their worst causality in the form of Vallon, who died at the brutal hands of Bill.  Young Amsterdam witnessed all of it and vows to avenge his dead father…sometime in the future.  He escapes and ends up in an orphanage (the luridly named Hellgate House of Reform) and the film flash forwards twenty years to the 1860’s and we meet the older Amsterdam (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) who listens to the cautionary words of one of the priests before he is set to return to the world.  As he leaves, clenching his Bible, he walks to the Five Points and casually throws the Holy Book into the river.  He’s on a journey back into hell, perhaps with no salvation in sight.

Amsterdam returns to the Five Points seeking out Bill, whose gangs are now even more anti-immigrant than ever.  Bill rules the Five Points with grizzly resolve and strength, using fear as his ultimate weapon (“Everything you see belongs to me, to one degree or another. The beggars and newsboys and quick thieves here in Paradise, the sailor dives and gin mills and blind tigers on the waterfront, the anglers and amusers, the she-hes and the Chinks.  Everybody owes, everybody pays”).  In Bill’s back pocket is William "Boss" Tweed (the delightfully unscrupulous Jim Broadbent), ruler of corrupt Tammany Hall, and a political figure that’s as crooked as Bill himself.  The ethnic divide is at an all-time high, and Bill and his cohorts only add fuel to an already burning fire.

Amazingly, no one recognizes Amsterdam when he returns, except for an old friend, Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas) who befriends him and keeps him up to speed with what has happened in is absence.  He is the only person – at first at least – that knows that he is the slain Vallon’s son.  Amsterdam uses Johnny to engage in a scheme that is a pact with the devil, so to speak.  He decides that the best way to defeat Bill once and for all is to join his inner circle and destroy him from the inside.  Unfortunately, this is made all-the-more difficult when Bill slowly grows to like the lad and almost begins treating him like his son.  To make matters worse, Amsterdam meets and falls for and old flame in Bill’s life, Jenny Everdene (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket who has spunk and street toughness to match her looks.  She may outwardly appear resilient and determined, but there is an underlining tenderness and sweetness to her, as with one poignant montage where she nurses Amsterdam after a near fatal altercation.

There are far too many moments in GANGS where Scorsese shows why he has such an absolute command over his craft.  His trademark camera moves and strong, energetic editing style (largely thanks to long-time collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker, the unsung hero of all of Scorsese's works) is as evocative as ever, but the real surprise to see how Scorsese is able to effortlessly utilize state of the art visual effects (something that he was not accustomed to in his previous films).  GANGS does not rely on a heavy preponderance of CG-overkill, which is what could have taken away from its overall visual richness.  Instead, Scorsese using computer visuals sparingly with amazing sets to create such a meticulous and strong vision of 19th Century New York life. 

Some of the film’s sights are astonishing and inspire legitimate awe, such as the before mentioned catacombs sequence, not to mention a fierce and deadly Draft Riot that occurs late in the film that is juxtaposed with the battle between Amsterdam’s newly reformed Dead Rabbits and Bill’s Natives.  The gang battles are suitably gory and appropriately chaotic.  There are even other quieter moments of strong, silent power, as is the case with a concluding time lapse shot where we see New York of 1860 slowly morph through the decades to the present day, with the Twin Towers hovering in horizon (it should be noted that GANGS came out post-911, but Scorsese always insisted on not omitting the famous New York landmark; it’s an important part of the city’s legacy).

Aside from the masterful recreation of 1860’s lower Manhattan, Scorsese was able to forge great performances from all of his actors.  Liam Neeson has a noble conviction and solemn strength in his brief role as Vallon, and some of the supporting parts, played by John C. Reily and Jim Broadbant, are equally good.  Cameron Diaz has a tricky role of playing a traditional love interest role who is – in this case – much more multi-faceted as a character.  She has the right amount of tense chemistry with DiCaprio’s Amsterdam.  DiCaprio himself – in his first film with Scorsese – carries the emotional arc of the film squarely on his soldiers.  His choices are interesting here; he is not flamboyant or colorful, per se, like many of the persons that surround him in the film.  Instead, DiCaprio plays the part with the right level of earnestness and introverted anger.  His loyalty to avenging his father is crucial to his quest in the film, but the manner that he takes to slowly exact his revenge is one of the film’s stronger points.  He’s the film's most focused and centered person, who makes the audience relate to him that much more.

Beyond the uniformly great performances by the cast, GANGS OF NEW YORK is Daniel Day Lewis’ film from a performance perspective, and his cagey, wild eyed, and unbridled ferocity he brings to Bill is mesmerizing.  It’s one of the great screen antagonists of the last decade, perhaps because Lewis does not play him as a one-dimensional sadist.  He commits unspeakable acts of cruelty, to be sure, but there is a sort of haunting compassion and icy charisma to the man.  He’s a layered character, oftentimes bridging the gap between being charming and capricious with being repugnant and dastardly.  He’s also a surprisingly funny character, in a macabre sort of way (as is the case with one funny moment has he nearly hits Jenny with a knife during a public show, to which he humorously dead pans, “Whoopsie-dasies!”). 

Yet, no matter how much detached and sadistic pleasure he has with killing others, there is a buried humility to Bill, as demonstrated by the film’s best scene where he has a quiet, bedside chat with Amsterdam about “a priest” he killed years ago.  He does not know Amsterdam's history, which only adds an undercurrent of tension to the scene.  “He was the only man I killed worth remembering,” he tells him with pride.  Without a doubt, Lewis deserved his Oscar nomination for his work in GANGS; it still remains one of the pre-eminent performances of the last few years.

GANGS OF NEW YORK was a film that seemed destined for Oscar’s red carpet, and the Academy awarded the film with ten Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Scorsese’s forth for Best Director, and for technical categories.  Shockingly, the film would not win one Oscar, becoming one of the most undeserved non-winners in recent film history (not since THE COLOR PURPLE has there been such a heavily nominated film that went home empty-handed).  The film was swallowed in the surprise limelight of CHICAGO, which would win Best Picture (the first musical since the early 70’s to do so) and Scorsese, sadly, would once again lose the Best Director to a relative novice, CHICAGO’s Rob Marshall.  History has shown CHICAGO to be arguably one of the weakest films to win Best Picture and – in all fairness – it is not as bold of an accomplishment as Scorsese’ GANGS.  Scorsese would be nominated again (for my pick for 2004’s best film, THE AVIATOR) and would lose yet again for the fifth time.  He was recently nominated again for one of 2006’s great films, THE DEPARTED.  Here’s hoping that it will be sixth time a charm for the filmmaker. 

GANGS OF NEW YORK is not indicative of the best of Martin Scorsese.  Considering the monumental legacy that he has had in the annals of American cinema over the last quarter century, it certainly would be a tradition any filmmaker would find difficult to maintain.  Nevertheless, his 2002 film still remains a stunning and proud work as it continued to represent the director’s desire to put his favourite cinematic city of choice under his scrutiny, albeit with different lenses.  His portrayal of mid- 19th Century New York gang life is brimming with grungy atmosphere and meticulous detail that we would only come to expect from him.  It rightfully places the history of the time in proper context.  America may have been forged by the Founding Fathers, but its legacy was often written by the brutality of streets.  In this way, GANGS OF NEW YORK is not quite the atypical Scorsese film that many perceive it to be.  Its setting and time period are different from Scorsese's past films, but you definitely see the conductor behind the scenes through and through. 

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