Sunday, 4 July 2010
Gangs of New York
Gangs of New York (2008) dir. Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson
By Alan Bacchus
“Gangs of New York” divided audiences in 2002. It received 10 Oscar nominations in most of the major categories. Some critics called the film the Best of the Year. Many, like myself, knowing the storied history of this ‘dream project’ for Scorsese, had high expectations and were disappointed with the result.
Seeing it in 2002 I really wanted to love the film, but couldn’t find anything beyond Day-Lewis’ remarkable performance to cling onto. The Blu-Ray release a couple years ago gave me a new appreciation of the film. After a five-year break “Gangs of New York” has improved greatly and could be considered one of the best films of that year.
"Gangs" opens with a pulsating introduction to the “Dead Rabbits” gang. Liam Neeson, an Irish Priest is preparing to go to battle. His little son, follows him around, watching him gather all his troops and warriors. Their battle tools are unsophisticated – knives, axes, hammers and other bludgeoning objects. As they walk through a series of underground fire-lit caves we still aren’t even sure when or where they are. Is it the Middle Ages? It’s only until after the camera pulls out from the bloody battleground do we realize its Manhattan in 1846.
The opening is backstory to the film when takes place 16 years after this famous battle which finds the priest’s son Amsterdam (Leonardo Di Caprio) returning home to find the killer of his father, the infamous Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Revenge doesn’t come easy though. Bill has become a de facto gang leader of the community, and with a new alliance with the city’s de facto politic leader, Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall (Jim Broadbent) he is now an untouchable.
The title is a bit of a misnomer. The film isn’t so much about gangs as it is about the city of New York. “Gangs” does what the best epic films do, weigh equally the big story with the small story.
The smaller story is about the evolving relationship of Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam Valone. Daniel Day-Lewis is still phenomenal as Bill. Day-Lewis’ casting and performance in “There Will Be Blood” is clearly influenced by his work in “Gangs of New York”. Day-Lewis is so good it came as a detriment to my first experience with the film. His exaggerated mannerisms chew the scenery and suck all the attention of every scene onto him. Lost in shuffle is a fine performance from Leonardo Di Caprio, who channels Hamlet-like qualities with his character’s indecisiveness. Like the Danish prince, Amsterdam wants to make a statement with Bill’s death. He says, “When you kill a king, you don't stab him in the dark. You kill him where the entire court can watch him die.” And so when Amsterdam becomes one of Bill's disciplines he finds himself admiring his enemy, complicating even further his indecision, and blurring the line between hero and villain.
The ‘bigger’ story is equally fascinating. During the Civil War, when the country was divided between North and South, New York was on its own – not neutral, but autonomous – like a separate colony with the country. And even within the city, everyone was autonomous – which is where the ‘gangs’ in the title comes from. Like the country itself, New York was constantly at war. So "Gangs" is also about the birth of New York and it's relationship with the rest of the country.
The finale, which takes place during the famous draft riots, is a great piece of writing – a scene which brings together the big story and the small story. Just as Amsterdam is about to face off with Bill, the riot starts and the federal police fight back. Amsterdam gets his revenge, but he’s alone with the man, without the fanfare he once foresaw. Bill the Butcher, one of the great villains in screen history dies with honour, neither a hero, nor a villain. Enjoy.
"Gangs of New York" is now available on Blu-Ray from Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Here’s Day-Lewis’ phenomenal dialog scene with Di Caprio: