After recently reading Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs Of New York from 1927, I thought it was about time I rewatch Martin Scorsese’s fictionalised 2002 movie version, Gangs Of New York.
Upon its release I remember the film being hugely hyped but getting a somewhat luke warm reception, though I remembered very much enjoying it despite this but thinking it was maybe a tad too long.
Watching it now my opinion has changed somewhat but not hugely.
Taking the general feel and events of the book and compressing them from a period of nearly a century to about a decade the film follows Leonardo DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon as he returns to the slum area known as The Five Points where he had seen his father killed in a gang battle some 16 years earlier at the hands of Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).
From there the story is a somewhat straightforward one of Vallon seeking revenge on The Butcher but with enough of a twist to keep it interesting.
Along with this a fair dose of colour is added by events of the time, again somewhat fictionalised, as we see the effect the civil war, and particularly the draft for the Union army and the riots it instigated have on the developing city, as well as the arrival of many immigrants from Europe, most particularly Catholics from Ireland.
Through all of this it all feels somewhat inconsistent as it tries to balance the historical fact with the fiction which never quite lands but, on this watch, it was more obvious that Scorsese employs some impressive visual techniques to show that this isn’t attempting to be historically accurate and is, in a sense, something of a particularly bloody fairytale telling of the birth of modern New York City.
While DiCaprio does an admirable job as the ‘hero’ (though he’s far from the most sympathetic lead in a movie, but that’s fairly standard Scorsese) and hadn’t yet reached his full potential which came a few years later, and, aside from her accent which is just about a step above Heather Graham in From Hell, Cameron Diaz does a decent job even she looks a bit too glamorous as the love interest, it’s Day-Lewis who really steals the film as the brutal and terrifying Butcher.
Filling the screen with an almost uncanny presence so, even when at his most polite and refined, he emits a sense of threat and violence that lurks just beneath his spectacular top hat and moustache, along with his physical performance and accent which are, as one might expect from him, astonishing, all of which very much helps us side with Vallon but rather makes him the most memorable thing and, even if we aren’t rooting for him, we are more inclined to want to watch him above anything else.
Elsewhere the cast is a who’s who of familiar faces with Jim Broadbent and Brendan Gleason particularly standing out while Liam Neeson does a good job in what is essentially a cameo.
Visually the whole thing looks amazing with sets and gangs of extras that make it feel huge when needed but provide a sense of intimate claustrophobia when required as well, and the slums of the five points and bars and brothels of the area have a distinct ring of truth but all with the aforementioned fairy tale sheen making it that something other – the Old Brewery set in particular is startling in its design and execution and if it was indeed an physical set is an astonishing piece of work.
Ultimately Gangs Of New York may not be one of Scorsese’s top tier films but, with a filmography like his, that still means it’s very good and while it may be inconsistent in places and spectacularly violent at times, it’s a fine way to spend a few hours and, actually, didn’t feel as overlong as I had recalled.
(But lets all agree to forget about the shockingly mawkish U2 track that plays over the credits)