The Gang's All Here
Allegedly having gestated in Martin Scorsese for twenty-five years, Gangs of New York is generally worth that long wait. Although publicity might tempt one to approach the film’s screenplay as gospel history, the story is, yet once again, misleadingly only "based" on fact – meaning juggled, rearranged for convenience by Hollywood, streamlined and, despite its violence and careful sets, sanitized.
Too long at two-hours forty-five minutes, Gangs emerges nonetheless as an exciting ride. It’s an Elizabethan mix of love and revenge, honor and family, ethnic and religious pride and prejudice, capped with battle scenes equal to those of other recent successes. Stripped, it’s the familiar tale of a child who watches his father prepare for the bloody confrontation in which he will die, out of which will grow the son’s mythical path of revenge.
After spending sixteen years at Blackwell’s (now Roosevelt) Island Hellgate House of Reform, the young "Amsterdam" (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the field of battle. He also becomes a trusted underling of his father’s killer, who has grown to rough respectability as ruthless king of the netherworld of New York’s infamous Five Points. Complicated by love and jealousies, by politics as wells as by racial/ethnic tensions and the divisive Civil War, this simple old story is made even more complex by the unlikely relationship kindled between killer and son, enemy and avenger.
Draped in a Nativist/Know-Nothing flag and reflecting to Amsterdam in a variety of bedside confession, William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) muses that the slain father was the last honorable man he killed, "the only one worth remembering. " Amsterdam saves his patron from a would-be assassin, not entirely to allow for his own revenge, but because he, too, is drawn to this charismatic figure larger than life, ruthless and yet capable of unexpected mercies, mordantly cynical and witty, by turns realpolitiker or philosopher.
For purposes of interest and comprehension, any medium’s fiction and non-fiction necessarily simplify issues, chronology and happenings, frequently to concentrate on one or two personalities. Witness Shakespeare’s history plays and Prescott’s magnificent History of the Conquest of Mexico. So, too, does Gangs of New York compress many years and events into its two protagonists, adding the father-son-protégé subplot à la Donnie Brasco. New York amid the nation’s mix and turmoil of 1846-63 is perhaps not entirely realized, but that seems inevitable, ultimately impossible. The feel is here, the hint of the troubled Melting Pot to be forged and also the unresolved theme of established "Natives" vs. invading immigrants that has gained new strength these last fifteen months.
In his first film appearance since The Boxer, Day-Lewis towers above everyone else and everything around him; his slow accent, sartorial splendor, moustache and eagle glass eye, his particular code of honor, laconic cynicism and underlying vulnerability, are intriguing. Cameron Diaz does well in the trite role of yet another rose raised among the stewpots. However, in the end, she’s too sweet to convey the requisite hardness. DiCaprio has finally matured physically and artistically, but he, too, is betrayed by an increasingly worrisome lack of decisive editing. No one today, it would seem, can bear to snip enough footage, although it should be obvious that a good eighty minutes, period, beats a good eighty trailing a surplus mediocre hour or more.
The dénouement becomes painfully obvious – this is by no means classical tragedy calling for comic, or any other, relief – but, to stretch things out, Butcher’s character is unadvisedly darkened and Amsterdam is furnished a social conscience. By the time the two adversaries encounter each other on a smoke-blinded battlefield, much steam has been lost.
But much has been gained, too. In simplifying the complex beginnings of this country’s identity problems – as relevant today as a hundred and fifty years ago – Scorsese has not trivialized or romanticized them beyond recognition. Indeed, the mere confronting of such issues on a broad scale in a major release is a giant step. That the film happens to be entertainment in the grand if bloody style is a plus, and the performance of Day-Lewis alone makes Gangs of New York worth the effort.
(Released by Miramax and rated "R" for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity, and language.)