Gangs Of New York

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Movie Review by Neil Ryan

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C Reilly
Director: Martin Scorsese

The protracted and often problematic realisation of GANGS OF NEW YORK has been the subject of numerous column inches over the course of the last couple of years. Indeed, it could be seen as fitting that this project, which director Martin Scorsese has aspired to bring to the screen for the past twenty-five years, should endure such a traumatic evolution given that the taglines for the film intimate that its central theme is that New York, America, and democracy were born out of the violence and chaos which dictated life on the streets of mid-Nineteenth century Manhattan.

Leonardo DiCaprio takes the lead role of Amsterdam Vallon, first seen as a young boy whose father is an Irish immigrant and leader of the Dead Rabbits, one of the many street gangs that plague lower Manhattan in this era. The young Vallon witnesses the death of his father at the hands of Nativist gang leader Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) and thus grows up vowing revenge. Sixteen years pass before the adult Vallon is able to inveigle his way unrecognised into Bill’s close circle of associates, and by this time the resolve of the nation is being rent asunder by the Civil War. (The War impacted on New York in the form of the draft riots of 1863 when the poorer citizens rose up in murderous protest against the new conscription law which demanded the recruitment of all men who could not afford $300 to buy themselves out of the Union army).

Having established himself with the Nativists Vallon is attracted to Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a streetwise protege of Bill who finds herself caught between the two protagonists. Ultimately it is Jenny who, along with the other Irish gang members, rally around Vallon when he is ostracised from the Nativists, thus making him realise that his personal vendetta is but one facet of his ultimate destiny: to be a leader of men – just like his father. And so Amsterdam and Bill head inexorably towards a final showdown set against a dramatic backdrop of anarchy as the draft riots take a hold of the city.

With GANGS OF NEW YORK Scorsese has successfully created an epic movie which straddles the historical and gangster genres. It is a hugely impressive achievement but despite (perhaps because of) its handsome scale and kaleidoscopic focus it may well prove to be a film that will only enjoy greater appreciation some years after its release. At present it is not far enough removed from the pejorative pre-release speculation and the distracting fanfare that attends a major premiere. And whilst the casting of DiCaprio ensures healthy media interest, it only serves to undermine the film’s standing when its star regularly (if unwittingly) appears in red-top gossip columns next to stories about Gareth Gates’ latest haircut. Hindsight should serve this film well.

Good though it is there are some quibbles with GANGS OF NEW YORK: the DiCaprio-Diaz romance is perfunctory and causes slight lulls, and the emergence of Vallon as a gang leader in the final third of the film is perhaps too rapid and in need of greater explanation. However, these are minor niggles and the compensations are manifold: the costumes, sets, and period detail will not be bettered this year; the large-scale set pieces are stunning and expertly handled; and Day-Lewis provides a magnificent Oscar-bothering performance. Any new Scorsese film is worthy of attention, but with GANGS OF NEW YORK he has produced his best work for years and it should be filed alongside the likes of APOCALYPSE NOW, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, and THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION as a latent classic.

5 out of 6 stars