The Good: Daniel Day-Lewis, Moments of directing
The Bad: Howard Shore's soundtrack, Lack of use of quality actors, Romantic subplot, Idiot characters
The Basics: When gangs ruled the Five Points of New York City, Irish immigrants rise up against the Native New Yorkers in a dull tale of revenge and confused character types.
Most everyone says that Martin Scorsese is a genius and it's easy to see why when watching The Gangs Of New York. Scorsese has a great eye for movement and framing and using the camera to tell the story he wants to tell. He populates his film with talented actors and has a decent sense of pacing. Unfortunately, there is little that lives up to his potential genius in this film.
The Gangs Of New York begins with the slaughter of the Dead Rabbit gang in the Five Points in New York City (made even more distracting by the time frame of the massacre being given after the battle as opposed to before). This is not a big plot revelation as anyone who knows movies can figure that Liam Neeson's character will not survive given he is not billed near the top in the credits. Priest Vallon is killed and sixteen years later, his son, Amsterdam, comes looking for revenge. He quickly absorbs into the corrupt New York City run by Boss Tweed and Bill the Butcher, the man who killed Priest. Amsterdam gets closer to Bill until he is exposed and leads an Irish revolution against the "Native" New Yorkers and the Civil War draft changes everything.
First, the high points. Daniel Day-Lewis is phenomenal as Bill the Butcher. He brings William Cutting to life with a crooked grin, an expert sense of timing and a fury and ferocity that is unlike anything he has ever done on film before. There is no trace of his subtle and likable character from The Last Of The Mohicans, nor his dull, plodding character from The Age Of Innocence. Here, Day-Lewis performs and convinces the viewer he is someone and something totally different, a corrupt killer. In short, he does everything an actor is supposed to with smashing results.
Unfortunately, Day-Lewis is the exception to the rule. A lot of talented actors appear in The Gangs Of New York and are woefully neglected and/or ignored completely. Jim Broadbent's Tweed is decent, but remains almost entirely a peripheral character. The acting talents of John C. Reilly and Brendan Gleeson are almost entirely wasted in the bit roles they perform in this movie. Similarly, Liam Neeson's performance is too easy to neglect given that the entirety of his performance is in the first fifteen minutes of a 166 minute epic.
The real loser of The Gangs Of New York (outside the viewer who sits through the entire thing), is the story. We've seen revenge stories before. I happen to like a decent story of revenge and intrigue. This is not that. It has all of the same, old cliches. Parent is killed, disappears, returns years later with vengeance on their mind, gets close to killer, is discovered, the situation moves to a resolution. Even the confused, out of the subtext ending that might surprise some, seems canned and serves only to rob the film of a decent catharsis. Instead, the conflict between Amsterdam and the Butcher seems simply like it wasn't worth resolving. It's a lot of blood and violence to lead to a vengeance not worth the effort to resolve.
Moreover, the romantic subplot, and I use the term "romantic" loosely, in The Gangs Of New York between Amsterdam and Jenny is both entirely cliche and tacked on. There is an attempt to make triangle issues between Amsterdam, Jenny and the Butcher, but it feels like a cheap romantic tool used to add a woman to the mix. In short, Cameron Diaz's Jenny feels like a character added at the last moment so there could be some sort of romantic interest for Amsterdam and it fails to engage the viewer. Instead, we feel like we are being cheated because it distracts from the emotional intensity of the revenge plot. This is a rare instance where the film would have been fine without trying to balance the cast and it might have made a more powerful commentary to show the obsession of the vengeful son to not include anything as redemptive (or in this case, obscuring) as a romantic attachment.
Like Jenny, many of the characters are simply archetypes that fit into a rather generic role in the larger storytelling mythos. The problem is, we - as viewers - want actual characters and end up woefully disappointed by The Gangs Of New York. The let down here is that almost all of the characters turn out to be complete idiots in the end. For example, Brendan Gleeson's world-weary warrior Monk transforms in an instant from a battle-hardened soldier and mentor to Amsterdam into an idealistic moron who is willing to turn his back on the greatest villain he has ever known. And unfortunately, he is not the exception in this movie, he embodies the rule. All of the characters defy their better judgment and the common sense of the viewer by reversing their own wariness and anger.
My final problem with The Gangs Of New York was Howard Shore's derivative score for the movie. As a big fan of The Lord Of The Rings saga (reviewed here!), I was surprised while watching The Gangs Of New York to find many similarities in the soundtrack to the Trilogy, especially in the battle scenes. This disappointment was amplified when Howard Shore's name came up in the credits; the similarity was the result of Shore's sudden lack of musical imagination and it plagues the movie as Shore attempts to link (musically) gang-ridden New York City to Middle Earth. That's just wrong.
In short, The Gangs Of New York may have had potential and there are stylistic elements like directing and costume design that work in its favor, but the potential is never reached because the actors are underused or are playing characters with such contrast to sensibility that they are almost unwatchable and ultimately not relatable.
For other films with Jim Broadbent, be sure to check out my takes on:
Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 2
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe
Bridget Jones’s Diary
Smilla’s Sense Of Snow
For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!
© 2012, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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