By CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Midway through Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York, a lavish, unwieldy, striking epic about the mean streets of lower Manhattan in the 1860s, a boy named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) wakes to find the city's most feared man, charmingly nicknamed Bill the Butcher, sitting beside his bed, watching silently, an American flag pulled tight around his shoulders like a patriotic shawl.
Bill (Daniel Day-Lewis) has a Snidely Whiplash mustache you could hang Christmas ornaments from. His sneer is early Robert DeNiro, circa. Scorsese's Mean Streets; his accent is unplaceable, a quirk of immigration rather than casting, a weird amalgamation of early America, flat, rough, with a hint of the Brooklyn to come. He's fond of stovepipe hats, and his left eye, to your naked eye, might look normal; up-close it's glass, with a retina carved into the shape of a hawk. In fact, as he tells Amsterdam, he carved it out himself. His own eye, that is.
Gangs gives us a Civil War-era Big Apple rotten with bruises, and worms wrapped around its core; or to use a metaphor from the narration, New York City nearly a century after the Revolutionary War was “not a city but a furnace where a city might be forged.” The film is massive, exhaustively researched, as huge as its subject: which is no less than the birth of the character, streets, and ugly sociopolitical foundation that New York City rests on, all wrapped like barbed wire around a flavorless, modestly engaging revenge tale.
Thirty years in the works, two years in production, a slew of aborted release dates behind it, a well-publicized struggle with Miramax founder Harvey Weinstein over the length and budget, not to mention hype that pegs it as the return of a young turk (DiCaprio) and an old pro (Day-Lewis), Scorsese's Gangs of New York arrives with a ton of baggage. Not the least of which is Scorsese himself, whose reputation as our greatest living filmmaker does nothing to alleviate the bulk of this thing. Scorsese has served New York well, having delivered definitive Gotham classics like Taxi Driver and Mean Streets.
He knows his way around brutality, but the awkward truth is he may not have been the ideal choice to make Gangs of New York. Much the way Stanley Kubrick handed down the material for A.I., Scorsese should have thought twice.
The movie is far from bad. His raw intimate style works surprisingly well with the larger picture, considering how untamable it is. But when the story narrows to its romantic-violent triangle, the scenes feel stymied and one-dimensional, though they get better, Scorsese can't quite match these scenes with the urgency of his big set pieces, and he grand violent opera he might have envisioned never completely materializes.
Set in the medieval squalor of the Five Points section of lower Manhattan, Gangs begins in 1846 with a street fight between a clan of natives, led by Day-Lewis' Butcher, and an immigrant gang led by the esteemed Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Here, Scorsese finds great drama in a shot that will stand as one of the filmmaker's memorable images: Vallon's gang working its way through a cave, dragging spears, scraping hatchets in a song of clatters and rasps until someone kicks open the door, and the movie goes silent and
the camera glides past, through the door, revealing an empty town common, silent with snow fall.
To make a long, just-under-three-hours story short, Bill kills Priest and Amsterdam watches the whole thing. He is sent to an orphanage, and he returns 16 years later to avenge his father. But can he get close enough, ingratiating himself, gaining enough trust that Bill even looks the other way when Amsterdam steals his lover (Cameron Diaz)?
Or will Amsterdam fall in tight with Bill and be seduced by the man's grip on the Five Points, an influence slowly spreading uptown to the infamous Tammany Hall and its “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent)? It's hard to care much when he hero looks overwhelmed and intimidated by the scale of the film. That DiCaprio's character is underwritten and shallow doesn't help, but it does reveal how uncomfortable Scorsese is with traditional movie heroes.
Still, no one makes movies with the gravity and elegance of Scorsese either, and missteps aside, what's important not forget here is the big picture, and I mean that quite literally. Gangs wants to be an epic's epic, and Scorsese, a movie lover's best friend, loves the staginess of the best. That's what he throws himself into. He clearly sees the film as the kindred spirit of Hollywood adventures like Spartacus and the natural offspring of colorful musicals like West Side Story; at times, in fact, I wouldn't have been surprised if the unwashed mob broke into song.
Day-Lewis' character, especially so. He's a great villain, and Day-Lewis gives a terrific, histrionic performance, combing physical intimidation with intuitive eyes, and a theatrical streak that makes his self-educated braggadocio hum like song lyrics. He is the self-conscious prototype of every modern day gangster, part politician, part ringleader, and what circus this is: Every cranny of every shot is congested with pickpockets and hussies, roving thugs, wandering pigs, rotting corpses in the gutter, begging orphans, and smoke billowing from cut-tin chimney stacks on the tops of decaying slums. It's like a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade put on by Scorsese, with help from Charles Dickens.
So Gangs of New York is sprawling, overloaded, often intentionally artificial. So what? If nothing else Scorsese has constructed Gangs as a masterpiece of Hollywood production design. He shot in Rome on mammoth soundstages, and says he used only a few computer-generated images; those clipper ships are real, as are designer Dante Ferretti's rickety tenement sets, arranged like hellish, stacked birdcages.
Indeed, if nothing else, Gangs works as an alternative history lesson. New York City was not built on courage and enterprise, Scorsese is saying, but intimidation and corruption, its laws enforced through violence. We see this in the film's Irish Catholic immigration, in its recognition of voter intimidation. The film culminates in a startling set piece based around the bloody Draft Riots of 1863. Battle ships pound the cities. Blacks are hunted. Mobs burn everything, and the chaos reflects off the film itself, which is too much to soak up just once. Gangs of New York might be the flawed result of a long, difficult gestation, but it's also a fascinating, sometimes brilliant work, and considering who made it, one that'll be debated among movie fans as long as someone cares as much about movies as Scorsese.