AICN - December 2002

 

GANGS OF NEW YORK

 

Considering the troubled production history and being one of the years' most-anticipated films, I quite frankly had no idea what to expect of 'Gangs of New York'. I'd heard of the fighting between Scorcese and Weinstein over the running time, and after seeing the film, I think a longer version (what Scorcese wanted?) would have benefitted.

It is 1846 and the gangs of New York are ready to fight for the Five Points, the poorest and most violent part of the city. Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) leads the 'foreign hordes' (Irish immigrants) against Bill the Butcher's (Daniel Day-Lewis) Anglo-Saxon natives. After a bloody battle, the natives have taken the upper hand. Fifteen years later, the son of Priest Vallon, Amsterdam (Leonardo Di-Caprio) vowes revenge on Bill the Butcher. As Amsterdam learns how to survive on the streets he encounters the beautiful Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a girl of the streets, surviving through prositution and stealing, at which she is without equal. She also holds a dark secret. The battle for the streets between the warring gangs reaches a bloody climax during the 1863 Civil war Draft Riots.

First and foremost, the script is fantastic. The rawness of the language and the original expression of feelings and emotions expressed thousands of times before on screen is delightful. Screenwriter Jay Cocks has written some memorable scenes which should garner him plenty of plaudits. And the story is perfectly realised, the simple revenge story at heart surrounded by political upheaval of the time and eventually even mirroring the attack of 9/11 on New York.

Scorcese can certainly still direct, evident in some grusomely staged fight scenes, and the abscence of one bad performance from a large cast. The 70mm projection is a joy to behold, every shot perfectly composed, aided by Michael Ballhaus' cinematography

Mention must also go to Stunt Co-Ordinator Vic Armstrong, turning up the testosterone to a level I haven't experienced in the cinema for a long time.

Faults with the film are minor. Pieces of music felt out of place, scenes felt truncated, the pace of the editing didn't always seem right (strange, seeing as long-time Scorcese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker is credited - has someone else been in the editing room after dark?), and DiCaprio's accent veers into 'Oirish' after long periods of sounding American, then quickly reverts back.

Daniel Day-Lewis' full-blooded creation of Bill the Butcher is awesome, definitely one of cinemas most frightening villians. You genuinely never know what he will do next, to which Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam character finds to his cost time and time again. There is one brilliantly tense scene where Bill the Butcher is playing with the life of a main character, the audience's anticipation of a horrible fate building fast, when suddenly the threat is transferred to another with brutal consequences. NO-ONE is safe when Bill the Butcher is around, he is truly unpredictable and VERY dangerous. I sincerely hope Day-Lewis' doesn't go back into retirement after this performance, it would be a massive loss to cinema.

Leonardo DiCaprio's performance (bar the accent) is very good. Intense, conflicted and brave, it's the sort of acting that should erase memories of the 'boat film'.

Cameron Diaz holds her own very well against Day-Lewis and DiCaprio, although her part in proceedings does seem to tail off slightly at the end. She also looks beautiful (sporting the biggest ginger hair since Harry Knowles) and I swear, when she smiles, you cannot help but fall under her spell.

The supporting cast is filled with some of modern cinemas' great performers, including David Hemmings, Jim Broadbent, and of course, the massive prescence of Liam Neeson. John C. Reilly and hE.nry T.homas also play important parts.

I could go on, because there are many highpoints in the film, but while I don't think the film is strong enough to be compared with Scorcese's great films like Mean Streets, Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, but they were over twenty to thirty years ago when he was a hungrier director. This is as good a Scorcese film as we're going to get these days, and I don't think anybody should complain about that. It will definitely figure in many of the years' top ten lists.

Thanks Proust !

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