Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York (18)

Swimming against the popular tide is often a critic’s lot, and lo, here we go: Gangs of New York is a ponderous, overlong and often self-indulgent slice of Americana that meanders for almost three hours before mercifully coming to its end.

There are those that would have audiences believe that this massive picture is Martin Scorsese’s epic, just as Schindler’s List was Steven Spielberg’s – a movie from the heart, shot with heart, and aimed at the commercial heartland of the film-going community.

Don’t be fooled. While Gangs of New York is dripping with talent and runs with all the bravura authenticity that Scorsese brings to all his movies, it is also murderously convoluted and, most tellingly, extremely boring in parts.

Set in 1860s New York it tells of the barbaric wars fought between ‘native’ Americans – those born of the original white settlers – and immigrants from Ireland and other lands who rub shoulders in the teeming streets of the Five Points, a confluence of narrow streets in what would later become Little Italy.

Sixteen years after his priest father, Vallon, was killed in one of the street battles by gang lord William Cutting, alias Bill the Butcher, Vallon Jnr leaves reform school and returns to the Five Points vowing revenge.

Calling himself Amsterdam, Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) absorbs himself into the life and cutthroat atmosphere of the Five Points, inveigling himself in the Butcher’s gang as a pretext to killing him. But the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis in his first film role for five years) is as canny as he is corrupt, and Vallon’s identity is soon uncovered.

As Vallon’s revenge plot looks set to turn to revenge tragedy, the poor folk of New York begin to rebel against the draft that is sending thousands of young men to fight in the Civil War. As rich declares war on poor and the authorities move into the Five Points, so Vallon and the Butcher must meet to decide their fates…

Gangs of New York has been Scorsese’s pet project for decades and, indeed, it benefits enormously from a sensational ensemble cast that includes Cameron Diaz as a whore shared by both Day-Lewis and DiCaprio and a succession of superb character actors in well-written parts. They include Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, David Hemmings, Jim Broadbent, Michael Byrne and Gary Lewis (the father in Billy Elliot).

The movie looks fabulous – like an American version of the scabby, rancid Victorian London prowled by Jack the Ripper – with an authentic period milieu and convincing backdrops. What lets it down irretrievably is the script and Scorsese’s wayward control over it.

What begins as a straightforward revenge story slowly metamorphoses into a history lesson as Scorsese and scriptwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan focus on a hitherto unseen slice of America. The director is obviously in no hurry to tell his tale, but Vallon’s vacillations (“Now might I do it, pat”, comes to mind) drag the film’s narrative to a crawl that is only leavened by the inclusion of some stylised and tightly choreographed  (read ‘extremely gratuitous’) fight sequences, which Scorsese shows unflinchingly.

Performances are what one has come to expect from artists like DiCaprio and Day-Lewis, the latter particularly memorable as an eye-rolling villain, replete with glass eye, who has gravitated from street thug to dandy merely by murdering his way through the opposition, but who agonises over his defeat of the priest 16 years earlier.

Yet Day-Lewis comes dangerously close to caricature throughout the movie. His squinting look and bushy moustache reminded this viewer of Thirties movie comedian James Finlayson, the butt of Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick pranks. All Day-Lewis needs to do is twiddle his moustache and say ‘Doh!’ and the transformation would be complete.

DiCaprio has matured nicely since his mad dash around the decks of the Titanic, five years ago, and he convinces as a vengeful son. His baby-faced looks allow him to play Vallon as a man in his early 20s (DiCaprio is 28) but he plays him as a damaged kid who never really saw a childhood. Diaz, on the other hand, is a purely decorative embellishment to the story; she has little to do but does it with no fuss.

Gangs of New York aspires to rise above Scorsese’s previous pictures – a Godfather compared to Goodfellas and Casino – but, in essence, it is no more than another consideration on the Mafia, albeit the embryonic beginnings of what would become the Cosa Nostra.

Some US pundits are predicting Oscar glory for Gangs of New York. Certainly it could be recognised for production design, cinematography and, perhaps, direction, but if it gets the big awards then one thing will become clear: Scorsese has been rewarded because, after 35 years in the business, it’s his turn, not because it’s his best movie.

Star rating: ***

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