Gangs of New York Review
By Joe Lozito
City City Bang Bang
Regardless of the material, a Martin Scorsese film will always be interesting to watch. Sometimes, when the stars align and the director finds a script for which he is perfectly suited, it can be magic. "Goodfellas", "Raging Bull", "Taxi Driver" - this is a director who has created some of the world's best films, period. Occasionally, Mr. Scorsese, like any artist, will dabble. Usually, with interesting results: "After Hours", "Age of Innocence", "The Last Temptation of Christ". These aren't his masterpieces, but they all contain moments of brilliance and the director's trademark flair. "Gangs of New York", the story of a boy avenging his father's death in Manhattan's gang-filled Five Points district in the 1860s, belongs to the latter category.
Mr. Scorsese has famously been editing and reworking this film over the past several months - never a good sign. At 168 minutes, the film could have used a little more trimming, but strangely a few additions as well. Subplot after subplot of Tammany Hall politics and an obvious love story between the boy (grown up to be Leonardo DiCaprio) and a beautiful pickpocket (Cameron Diaz, cut from the same cloth as the cockney hooker played by Heather Graham in "From Hell") serve only to inflate the running time without expanding on the atmosphere so expertly created in the riveting opening minutes, which contain possibly the most beautifully brutal fight scene in any Scorsese film - and that is saying a whole lot.
Mr. DiCaprio and Ms. Diaz meet cute (she picks his pocket, of course) and go through the motions of uncovering each other's pasts and secrets, but there is little doubt about, or really interest in, whether these two will hook up. And, really, shouldn't Mr. DiCaprio's quaintly-named Amsterdam be plotting the revenge of his father (Liam Neeson, oozing Jedi-flavored nobility all too briefly) instead of dilly-dallying with the locals?
It is when "Gangs" delves into the darker side of the story that the film really comes together, and that is due in no small part to Daniel Day-Lewis, who comes out of apparent exile to create Bill the Butcher, perhaps the most memorable movie villain since Hannibal Lecter. Bill rules Five Points with an iron hand - and quite literally an eye to match, complete with a bald eagle emblazoned on it. Mr. Day-Lewis relishes each line of misplaced nationalism and bigotry. He makes Bill what every movie villain should be, but rarely is: empathetic.
Oddly, or maybe because of, the lavish sets built in Italy's famous Cinecittá Studios, "Gangs" fails to evoke a real feeling of place. Yes, the streets are muddy, the atmosphere is cold and there is a palpable sense of danger in the air, but you would think one of America's finest living directors, and one known for New York stories, would play up the locale a bit more. We are given glimpses of the city as a whole in the film's opening and closing moments which only serve to highlight the fact that the rest of the film stays anonymously close to the streets. Without the grander spirit of New York haunting the film, "Gangs" becomes a standard revenge opus. And a long one at that.