Friday, January 31, 2003

Gangs of New York / ***1/2 (2002)

Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" is a movie alive with greatness at several cylinders, a vibrant and challenging period drama that utilizes history, politics, intrigue and violence on the seams of a thoughtful narrative about the dark side of humanity. We've been taken to places like these often by Scorsese—stories that deal with characters who emerge from the shadows to take on the world around them—but seldom have they been structured with such painstaking precision or such compelling range. As you watch it unfold, you find yourself understanding exactly why the man behind the camera remains such a significant influence in modern cinema. This isn't just a movie you watch, after all, but one you experience.

The picture opens with only one of the many strokes of genius spread across the entire canvas. In a preparation sequence building up to a bloody confrontation between two feuding New York gangs in the mid-19th century, an Irish Priest (Liam Neeson) looks into the eyes of his young and curious son Amsterdam, who is handed his father's bloody razor but is instructed not to wipe it clean. "Someday you will understand why," the priest informs him. And soon after, it's off into the frigid and empty streets of the "Five Points" territory, where the Irish immigrants are ready to destroy and then ransack the gang of natives led by William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a local butcher whose claim over the area, we gather, is intensely firm but widely accepted.

The confrontation, needless to say, results in the graphic dismemberment of several crucial participants—the movie even ups the visual intensity by providing its fighters not with guns, but with ordinary kitchen items like knives and meat cleavers—and the war climactically ends with the slaying of the Irish Priest at the hands of his core opponent, the Butcher himself. Amsterdam bears witness to this tragedy, naturally, and when he resurfaces in the Five Points area 15 years later, he is still shaken by that incident enough to seek out revenge. Lucky for him, the Butcher retains his rule over the area after all those years and is unaware that its newest arrival is the aged son of his greatest nemesis.

Like most of the director's past work, the thoughtful approach finds its ultimate reward in characters, many of whom aren't structured by clich├ęs or simple outlines. There is Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a seemingly high-class socialite whose pick-pocketing shenanigans win the attention of Amsterdam himself, and William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), the political center of the Five Points who, in addition to being a relentless collector of birds, appears to be in Bill's own back pocket. We also meet Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), an officer of the law who, Amsterdam immediately recognizes, was once part of his father's gang all those years ago.

Fused with the supporting players, furthermore, are two strong leads, both of whom never quite fall merely onto one side of the moral fence. DiCaprio's character cunningly worms his way into the life of his father's killer, but once there, finds himself divided by both his impulsive obligation and his own growing admiration for the butcher. Ditto to Mr. Cutting, a merciless lord of crime who, despite all the malicious acts in his past, still remembers his greatest adversary with a stroke of compassion (at first seen by the Priest's portrait sitting on his mantle, and elaborated on later when he tells Amsterdam that the Irishman was "the only person I ever killed who is worth mentioning"). On the acting note, Daniel Day-Lewis is as convincing and compelling here as he has ever been, and most of his depth is fueled by a script so well aware of character identity that it seldom strays from plausible development. Few times in the past has a movie so effectively blurred the lines between protagonism and antagonism.

There is no denying here that Scorsese loves his backdrop almost as much as he loves the way the narrative and its players build to a summit. With almost his entire career focused on discovering the dark hidden treasures beneath the big lights of New York City, he finds himself in his most challenging undertaking yet with "Gangs of New York," a film that, we are often told, has been a dream on the director's mind for nearly all of his career. To understand the extent to which Scorsese is passionately obsessed with the popular metropolis, one doesn't need to look any further than the spectacular cinematography and art direction, which utilize every element of the past they can without appearing too primitive or obvious in the process. The movie's ambitious look is almost a character in itself, alive with spirit and determination as men from different sides of the cultural divide fight for command over it.

The endeavor, unfortunately, is still burdened with challenges that it is unable to overcome in the end. Two or three scenes in the first hour, for instance, have little purpose other than to stretch the film's somewhat exhausting running time, while certain character interactions, particularly between Amsterdam and Jenny, feel merely like plot devices rather than natural couplings. DiCaprio, meanwhile, is quite distracting here because he doesn't occupy his character like he understands or even cares about his motivation, and the delivery is slightly stale, especially during early scenes in which he is just a spectator to the Butcher's infrastructure of rule. These are all relatively minor quibbles that shouldn't be stressed anymore than necessary, but for a man like Scorsese, perhaps the fact that his dream product contains any kind of flaw whatsoever is somewhat of a distraction itself. That doesn't mean we think any less of his overall work; it's just that we expected a little more in the end.

Still, this is not one of those films that any specific viewer is so eager to forget or ignore. With its heart and soul pumping with enthusiasm from one scene to the next, "Gangs of New York" is like few of the major accomplishments of the past. And unless the viewer is comatose during the near 3-hour running time, chances are he or she will at least find something here that they will happily remember for a long time afterwards.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Cast & Crew info:
Leonardo DiCaprio: Amsterdam Vallon
Daniel Day-Lewis: William 'Bill the Butcher' Cutting
Cameron Diaz: Jenny Everdeane
Jim Broadbent: William 'Boss' Tweed
John C. Reilly: Happy Jack
Henry Thomas: Johnny Sirocco

Produced by Gerry Robert Byrne, Laura Fattori, Alberto Grimaldi, Maurizio Grimaldi, Michael Hausman, Michael Jackman, Graham King, Michael Ovitz, Joseph P. Reidy, Rick Schwartz, Colin Vaines, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein, Rick Yorn and Martin Scorsese; Directed by Martin Scorsese; Screenwritten by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan

Drama (US); Rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language; Running Time - 168 Minutes

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