"Gangs of New York" is one of a few. The budget mushroomed out of control, to a point where breaking even is likely impossible. The filming was plagued with problems, resulting in reshooting many scenes. Worst of all, it was pushed back an entire year, an almost certain sign that the production is faulty. Nevertheless, "Gangs of New York" rises from the ashes and is one of the better films of 2002.
Director Martin Scorsese, considered to be one of the best directors ever, has recreated the world of Civil War-era New York, a horrid place of poverty, corruption, filth, crime and worst of all, gangs. Thousands upon thousands of immigrants are arriving each day, yet not all of the "natives" are willing to share their land and money with these foreigners. To make matters worst, the Civil War draft is in effect; only the rich can buy their way out. Tensions are high and the powder keg is about to blow. The world is richly detailed, intricately designed, and very believable; it is dark, hideous, and represents a past that perhaps many Americans don't know about. This is New York City, before it became what it is now. The costume design is also excellent; Scorsese has recreated the city how it was 150 years ago.
Enter the story. A young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to New York, calling himself Amsterdam and seeking revenge. He falls into good graces with the gang leader of the 5 Points district, a ruthless, violent figure named Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), and starts making money. Along the way, he meets a beautiful thief named Jenny (Cameron Diaz) and falls in love; she is Bill's adopted daughter. Amsterdam has fallen into Bill's trust - or as close as anyone can get - but he wants to kill him, because Bill the Butcher killed his father (Liam Neeson) fifteen years ago. A gang war is about to ensue.
It is your typical tale of revenge, but built into a historical story that probably bears much to truth and some to fiction. Though Amsterdam is far from being a true bad guy - he is determined to take the streets back from Bill the Butcher via murder and violence - the audience immediately begins to cheer for him, because is he most definitely the lesser of two evils.
Almost everything about this movie screams Oscar nomination. Almost everything.
The acting is terrific. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to be one of the most underrated actors of the last decade, partly because he tends to stay away from Hollywood fluff films (except for "Titanic," which of course really wasn't a fluff film as it swept the Oscars) but mostly because of his looks. He is a pretty boy and people hate him for it. They don't realize that he is a good actor. A very good actor. In "Gangs," DiCaprio is very good, though not perfect. He is believable, likeable, yet dark and brooding, but there is something that is missing. Or, perhaps, he is just outdone by his co-star, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Day-Lewis, returning from a four-year hiatus, turns in one of his best performances ever as the terrible Bill the Butcher, a true historical figure. Without hearing his name, many people would not recognize Day-Lewis, not necessarily because of his mustache but because of his performance. This character is so different from anything he has done before that it is frightening. I see an Oscar nomination in his future.
The story is compelling, though somewhat different than one might expect. The ending was definitely a shocker, even slightly disappointing. Actually, the entire film is more dramatic than I expected, though I should have figured as much, since it is coming from Scorsese. I think it was a big mistake to advertise "Gangs" as an action movie, because there truly is not that much action in the film, though it does have its fair share of violence. The gang wars come at the beginning and end, and even those scenes are small.
The only aspect that really hurts "Gangs of New York" is its pace. It has some pretty slow stretches, and even the more intriguing parts seem stretched out and overworked. While Scorsese's camerawork is masterful, he maybe should consider keeping the audience's interest in mind. The movie could probably have lost twenty or so minutes.
"Gangs of New York" is a well done film with excellent acting and a gritty, realistic rendition of Civil War-era New York. Nevertheless, the pace of the film alone will hurt its Oscar chances, and box office success.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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