Even without guns and cars, I’d still be pretty freakin’ scared to go toe-to-toe with a gangster from the 1800’s. Especially, if they were in-character the whole time.
Taking place in New York City around the 19th Century, the son of a gang leader named Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) comes back to his hometown in order to avenge his father’s death. He plans to do this by killing the leader of the Natives, a simple and kind fellow named Bill Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). By the way, the “simple and kind” statement, was bullshit. The guys fuckin’ crazy.
Apparently, this was a “dream project” for director Martin Scorsese for about 5 or 6 years that took longer than he expected to actually get made. Like all dream projects we have in our minds, we joggle them around forever, and actually crash-down to reality and realize, “oh shit, this is going to take longer than I ever wanted to”. Yeah, even directors feel that way and yes, even Marty Scorsese apparently too. It was reported to cost over 100 million dollhairs, took months and months to build actual sets of the film, needed to go through tons of editing, and was released in December of 2002, a year later than it originally had planned. Usually when this kind of crap happens, this usually shows trouble with the overall film quality, regardless of who the actual director is. Thankfully, Marty is unlike any other and that’s all that matters.
What I liked most about this flick is how Marty tackles the same exact style of gangsters, crooks, and bastards in the 1880’s, the same way he would with the ones of the 1900’s. There’s a very fast-paced essence and feel to the whole film that keeps you on-edge as to what’s going to happen next, what characters are going to be finito by the end, and when this final-battle between the two opposing sides is actually going to occur. Now, does it look and feel like an actual Scorsese flick? Not really, but that’s what’s so interesting about the guy. He’s able to change-up certain trademarks he has about himself and give a new story, a whole different type of look and feel you wouldn’t quite expect from him. It does get pretty damn violent at times, so there’s the obvious trademark for ya, but regardless of how many trademarks are shown in here, it’s still pretty damn entertaining to watch even if you have seen it over 5 times and can calculate everything now, like yours truly.
However, as many times as I have sat-down and watched this 2-and-a-half-hour-movie and been entertained by it, I still can’t deny that there lies a whole butt-load of problems brewing beneath the surface. First of all, one of the biggest hints that this film was going to have trouble with itself was the fact that it has three writers working on it (Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan). Usually, that spells out trouble and that’s exactly what we get here as this film tackles a bit more than it can get away with. In fact, it actually seems like these writers were all given different subjects to write about, understand, and bring back to Marty so they could make one, big, and long epic about life in NYC in the 1800’s. That idea, in case you were confused by what I was saying, does not work here as it’s too many ideas, with too little of a pay-off.
The whole idea is about gangs that hide out and cause havoc in New York, which makes a compelling and entertaining watch on it’s own, but then, once you add all of those other ingredients in, it get’s a bit over-stuffed to the point of where you have no freakin’ clue what this movie is trying to talk about or even convey. Is is about a young dude getting revenge on the guy who murdered his dad? Yes, well, sort of. Is it about a possible “romance” between this young dude and untrustworthy gal? Yes, well, sort of. Is it about the history of New York in the 1800’s? Yes, well, sort of. Is it about the war and how everybody had to take part in it? Yes, well, sort of. Or, is this flick all about how politics usually came into play with the gangs and how they all acted around one another? Once again, yes, well, sort of. As you can tell, this film touches on too many subjects, adds in too many subplots, and juggles too many ideas, which shouldn’t have been such a huge problem, given the time-limit offered to the script, but somehow it just does not work altogether and seems jumbled around like the best bits of an musician’s career. However, these “best bits”, aren’t really the best. They’re slightly mediocre to say the least.
Probably the most compelling story of all should have been the whole revenge tale with this young dude going after the man that killed his father when he was a child and he vowed at nothing to stop him from succeeding at that. However, that whole story seems a bit half-baked considering we barely get to see the young dude with his father as a kid; barely get to see how all of this has an effect on him as an slightly older dude and constantly being in that man’s presence; and barely get any tension except for the last 20 minutes where everything really comes into play. And heck, even that final stand-off doesn’t really count, for reasons I can’t state.
Speaking of the ending, some people freakin’ despise it and count it as one of the worst of all-time (and once you see it, you’ll know why), but I actually thought it was a pretty clever way to allow it to tie into history and give it more of an importance in terms of how we view New York City now, and how it really was. Yeah, it wasn’t the best way that a genius like Scorsese could come-up with and yeah, it may have dropped the ball on some fun and excitement, but it still was pretty neat to see how everything was going to be tied around in a nice little bow at the end. It comes off as a nice reminder that NYC has history and is a beautiful place to live, which was an idea that some people may have brushed-off to the sides during the lean days of ’02.
Despite all of this bad talk, I still had a lot more fun with this flick because of the performances from an impressive ensemble that Marty always has a knack for casting well. Leonardo DiCaprio proves he is able to take on a stronger, more dramatic role as a young kid going through a bit of a crisis and makes Amsterdam a believable, and compelling character to watch. It’s also better since the guy is easy to get behind and can practically kick anybody’s ass, but doesn’t get too in-over-his-head like most characters of this same-exact convention usually do. The kid may not always have a huge ounce of charm to his look and personality, but it’s Leo, and the guy is always great to watch on-screen and you can’t help but root for Amsterdam as things start to go from better-to-worse, sooner than later. Then, there’s Cameron Diaz, who I am not a very big fan of but is serviceable in a role that could have easily gone to any other actress and still been as good or entertaining. That’s not really a good thing or bad thing, it’s just that her character doesn’t offer much to really intrigue you and Diaz doesn’t help us with that much, either.
But despite these two, the one who really steals the show is none other than the man, the myth, the effin’ crazy man who stayed in-character the whole time during the making of this flick: Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill Cutting, or as my dad likes him to be referred to as, Bill the Butcher. Cutting is a very fun character to watch and the fact that he’s played by Daniel Day just makes him all the more compelling to keep your eye on as every chance he gets, he proves to you why this guy can never be trusted and why so many damn people in the city fear him for the things he can do. Cutting is a bit caricaturish, but Daniel Day makes sure it doesn’t get too over-the-top and strangely, keeps the guy human and believable in his own, sadistic way. There’s the one memorable scene that really touched me where he’s talking to Amsterdam about the only man that was worth remembering that he killed (Amsterdam’s father) and it gives us a wonderful look-see into a man that does some pretty terrible and evil things, but still feels something for the people he kills, even if they are his biggest enemies. Daniel Day is electrifying in this role and makes it all the more fun to watch, but sadly, he is probably the only interesting character of the bunch, and he’s the freakin’ bad-guy you’re supposed to despise!
Consensus: Gangs of New York struggles with way too many ideas, themes, and a bunch of plot-points that never come fully-realized, but has a very entertaining feel and vibe to it, that places you in this setting of New York City during the 1800’s, and features compelling performances from everybody involved, including the magnetic Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill Cutting/the Butcher.
7 / 10 = Rental!!