It doesn't take long before we feel that Martin Scorsese's ambitious dream project about the early, brutal days of New York City has been compromised. I'm not the one to assess who's to blame, maybe Scorsese himself messed up, but this is not the masterpiece this could have been. Irish immigrants led by the Priest (Liam Neeson) confront the "natives" of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) in the middle of the Five Points, ready to fight to death to decide who will have control of the neighbourhood. We find ourselves in awe before the huge sets, the countless extras all in clothes of the era and we dread the imminent bloodbath... And then we get a confusing, choppily edited gorefest with badly used visual gimmicks and an instrumental version of a track off Peter Gabriel's latest CD. That's Scorsese's historical epic?
The heavy exposition that follows doesn't improve matters. From then until the very end, the film is marred by big chunks of voice-over attempting to put events into context and to explain the characters' motivations. Scorsese has often used narration in the past and made it work as a complement to his dynamic visual storytelling, but here we're assaulted with information and it becomes distracting. You get the impression that the writers wanted to fit in all the research they made, restraint and subtlety be damned. In the meantime, the large scale and complexity of the production design and the art direction impress, but we're rushed through them. And for what? An uninvolving revenge story.
The film mostly takes place 16 years after Bill the Butcher murdered the Priest, as the latter's son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) makes his way in the Butcher's gang, waiting for the best time to avenge his father's death. Right there, this kind of lost me: why doesn't Amsterdam just kill the bastard already? Why befriend him, work for him, become like a son for him? I suppose this could be taken as Hamletish, or like a "revenge is a dish best served cold" affair but still! There's a risk that the whole revenge thing would become an after-thought, but the movie takes care of that by regularly smacking in a little flash-back to the opening. "That guy killed that guy's old man, remember!"
The revenge story is apparently not enough tired clichés for this movie, so we get not one but two love triangles, each as half-assed as the other. See, there's this Johnny kid (Henry Thomas) that knew Amsterdam when he was a boy, and now they meet again and do muscle and thievery jobs together for Bill. But what do you know, a woman gets between them! She's Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket who sorta whores for the Butcher, and Johnny likes her... But she likes Amsterdam... And he likes her too, but then he's pissed because she's been with Bill and... Ugh, I'll stop, it just jerks around in circles, like so many contrived plot motions. I generally enjoy the work of both DiCaprio and Diaz and they do what they can here, but we never see the sparks implied between the two and they seem to stick out in this 19th century setting. And in any case, not many actors could match Daniel Day-Lewis' charismatic, memorable turn as the gleefully rotten Bill the Butcher. He's so good, in fact, that he unbalances the whole film. You don't want Amsterdam to kill him, he's the most compelling thing in the film!
"Gangs of New York" is like O Brother Where Art Thou
or Road to Perdition
, greatish period recreation in search of a narrative. It's kicked up a notch in the third act when the draft riots break out and we witness a very ugly page in American history, but despite a bunch of rambling speeches about how "civilisation is crumbling" and glimpses of political corruption through the movie, it's not quite clear what Scorsese's stand is. Does he support the immigrants who refused to fight in the Civil War and went so far as to lynch random African-Americans in spite? Or should we root for the government which sent troops fresh off Gettysburg to kill them into submission?
There's too much great filmmaking in "Gangs of New York" for it not to be worth seeing, warts and all, but I can't help but feel this is a missed opportunity.