Gangs of New York

If it were anyone but Martin Scorsese behind Gangs of New York, most critics would, I suspect, advise you to avoid it. Since it is Scorsese, the reviews have been respectful even when mixed, in honor of the master’s early films. They are genuflecting to a movie god whose presence is seldom felt in Gangs of New York, a murky, empty saga that represents Scorsese at both his biggest and worst. Scorsese had wanted to adapt the material in Herbert Asbury’s nonfiction book for 30 years, and the trials he went through to shoot the picture and then edit it down to a reasonable length are by now legendary, so the temptation may be to go easy on this epic from the critically anointed Greatest Living American Director. What’s the point of defending the movie, though, when there’s very little of him in it? It’s like revering a toilet Scorsese recently used and flushed.

Well, maybe not that bad (I can hear the howls: “You’re likening the new Scorsese film to a toilet?”). The movie is certainly watchable, if choppy and impersonal (the choppiness may owe to the reported hour of trimmed footage). Much has been made of its violent passages, when warring factions in 19th-century New York go at each other with knives, cleavers, swords, even metal claws. It’s hard to say how much of the resulting thin flash-cut carnage was genuinely Scorsese’s idea and how much was imposed on him by the MPAA, but what you’re watching is fleeting glimpses of slashing and bashing in the midst of seething chaos. I’m not asking for slow-motion close-ups of flying heads and splattered guts, but it would be nice to have some spatial sense of what’s going on; the moments of mass slaughter, which must have been hell to choreograph, just feel fake — fake-seeming brutality surely being a first in a Scorsese film. Worse, it feels as though Scorsese is aping the frantic, incompetent hand-to-hand combat scenes in lesser films like Gladiator.

The story that Jay Cocks has drawn from Asbury’s anecdotal material (with the help of co-scripters Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, both of whose knack for pithy, juicy dialogue is sometimes evident here) is a drawn-out revenge fable. In 1846, the stolid, noble Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), leader of the immigrant gang the Dead Rabbits, readies for battle with the Natives, led by the vicious and aptly named Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Vallon falls to the Butcher’s blade; his now-orphaned son escapes and grows up to be an angry young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who christens himself Amsterdam. Since there’d be no movie if he didn’t, Amsterdam returns to the Five Points, site of his father’s death, where the Butcher still holds sway, with various politicians and lawmen (including Jim Broadbent’s Boss Tweed and John C. Reilly’s too-Officer-Clancy-like Happy Jack). Amsterdam falls in with Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), who remembers him from childhood; he cons himself into the Butcher’s inner circle and into the bed of the Butcher’s favorite lass, the pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz).

What with the post-Titanic Leo craze, people forget that DiCaprio can be a fine actor and entertainer. (For proof of that, I refer you to the contemporaneous Catch Me If You Can.) But as written, Amsterdam simply isn’t a strong enough — or complex enough — character to hold the center of a 168-minute movie, and doesn’t give DiCaprio enough to chew on. The performance is surly and wet; I don’t think DiCaprio smiles more than twice. Where was Scorsese on the set? He all but ignores Cameron Diaz (whose accent comes and goes, and whose character scarcely makes sense anyway), and, as usual, he doesn’t have much interest in the film’s women in general; mostly they’re puffed-up society femmes or cackling whores, and the alarming-looking warrior Hellcat Maggie (Cara Seymour), who slashes men down with her metal talons and takes their ears, gets lost in the crowd after the first gang battle, occasionally scowling wordlessly (she has no dialogue) in the middle of the rabble.

No, Scorsese only has eyes for Daniel Day-Lewis as the Butcher. I’ll concede that this is a riveting figure of mayhem played by a great actor returning from a five-year hiatus from the screen; Day-Lewis, his voice as flat and mean as the blades he flourishes, knows the camera is attending to his every intonation and twitch, and performs accordingly. But how much of a triumph is it to lord over a movie that the director hands to you while forgetting about your co-stars? The Butcher has more life — and more fun — than anyone else in the movie, and it was around the halfway point that I started understanding Gangs of New York as a 19th-century rewrite of GoodFellas, with DiCaprio filling in for Ray Liotta as the gangster who is in, but not quite of, a violent group of men, while Day-Lewis, a taller and more baroque Joe Pesci, enjoys being the unpredictable psycho everyone fears.

Why did Scorsese spend three decades thirsting to make this movie? It’s nowhere clear on the screen. Probably he wanted to wallow in the low, Dickensian origins of the macho, destructive gangs whose modern descendants he chronicled so memorably and effortlessly. But he’s stuck with a wholly conventional script and a $100 million budget; you definitely see the money on the screen — the elaborate sets were built at the Cinecitta studios in Rome — but it registers as flop sweat, not an actual place where actual people lived, just as the equally cluttered sets in Robert Altman’s Popeye made you feel the strain and pressure of money.

Gangs of New York doesn’t feel torn from Scorsese’s obsessions, or even sparked by his curiosity (as his underrated Kundun did). Frankly, it feels as if Harvey Weinstein finally handed him a check to make some sort of Gangs of New York film, and as if Scorsese, not wanting to blow the chance, rushed into it with a weak script and a faint memory of why he’d wanted to film the book in the first place.

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