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Friday, June 24, 2011

Gangs of New York

Rating: ★★★★

They're about to literally stomp the yard.

The critical divide over this film is astounding, even after almost ten years since it was released. The general consensus seems to be "it's an excellent film, but a touch unnecessary". I can understand that, and in some ways I'm inclined to agree. But, when reviewing a film, it's important to not think of it in an existential way (unless, of course, it requires that). What the film is, regardless of its necessity, is a sprawling epic and a beautifully told story. Filled with large characters and passionate direction. In some ways, it's a masterpiece. In other ways, it's just a damn good film.

Most people understand the word 'masterpiece' as being the singular pinnacle of an artist's career. I've always understood it to mean a piece of work that reflects the artist being at the top of their game. And by that definition, Martin Scorsese's career is loaded with masterpieces. So much so that the standard of 'masterpiece' becomes a bit higher for him. Gangs of New York, as Roger Ebert once remarked (and I'm saying this here because I've agreed with him for almost ten years now), would have been any other director's masterpiece. But in a filmography that contains Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Age of Innocence, etc.... it falls just short. A towering achievement, nevertheless, but not 'his masterpiece'.

More after the cut --

When I use the word "towering", Daniel Day-Lewis is a name that immediately comes to mind. Outside of Nine, I have trouble believing he can't be perfect. Even when he goes so far over-the-top in a performance, there's always a sense of extreme realism - you're watching a man create a god, almost. Martin Scorsese knew that, and pulled Day-Lewis out of a self-imposed semi-retirement that lasted five years, since 1997's The Boxer. Yes, there are actors that could have played Bill the Butcher quite well, but I sincerely believe that this is something Day-Lewis was meant to do. And the news of his preparation for the role shows his dire commitment to his craft, and the respect he has for what he's doing. He lived in character, for the months dedicated to filming, never breaking his accent or even being himself on set. He caught pneumonia during the winter months of the production, but refused treatment as it wouldn't have been in keeping with the times. Of course, he was persuaded finally to accept help, but his refusal (while undeniably nuts) shows his love for the craft. A tad misguided, but never mind.

And like I've said of Daniel Day-Lewis in the past, it's never the preparation. It's the performance. And it's a hell of a performance.

The film opens in 1846, as we watch two rival gangs prepare for a war. Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) gathers the members of his gang, the Dead Rabbits, to brawl with the Natives, led by William Cutting aka Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). An incredible tracking shot walks us through the underground tenement where some of Vallon's soldiers live, and where the rest of them prepare for battle. We meet characters we'll see in different lights about fifteen years later in the story. We meet Vallon's young son, and we understand that the fight that's about to happen is supposed to settle an old score. Dead Rabbits are an Irish breed, compiled of immigrants and the like, and the Natives are New York born men, fighting for "their country". About as sensible as gang violence gets, especially in 1846.

The opening scene could be considered a masterpiece in the pantheon of Scorsese's career, though it makes for an underwhelming following two hours. A brilliant musical choice (the odd, yet involving inclusion of electric guitars and drum machines) backs up the graphic spilling of blood and quick cuts as only Martin Scorsese could present it. Priest Vallon is killed, and his young boy sent off to the aptly named "Hellgate Orphanage". 16 years later, the boy comes back as Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) and falls in with The Natives, attempting to get close to the man who killed his father, wanting to finish the job. He meets his on-again/off-again love interest Jenny (Cameron Diaz) and learns what happened to the men who fought for his father. Some of them are policemen, some of them are now Natives, and some of them just are. A few of them are not. Most people just find a way to survive. Jenny is whatever she needs to be, at any moment of the day - a pickpocket, a prostitute, a thief, a girlfriend, a lover...

The film could be considered a love letter to a then (and still) grieving New York City. Much of Scorsese's career has been made out of loving that city, so a tribute to its birth would only make sense. This could also be an ode to the days of Irish immigration, is it depicts several scenes of mistreatment of immigrants and travel conditions, much in the way that The Godfather, Part II does. And while he's taken hits on the historical accuracy of the film (some pieces are literally years out of place), the passion he displays makes almost all points moot. And a note - this film began the love affair between DiCaprio and Scorsese, making a team that rivals Scorsese/De Niro in terms of quality.

Under Day-Lewis' shadow, it seems that some of the performances fall a bit flat in comparison. While constantly hearing Day-Lewis' accent, all the others seem shaky, especially DiCaprio's, though that's a fault of his own and no one else's. Despite that, though, his performance is exactly what it needs to be - confused, enraged, murderous. Cameron Diaz has always had an exacting comedic timing, even in her dramatic roles, but I think that's her downfall in this film. After decidedly brilliant turns in My Best Friend's Wedding and There's Something About Mary, it's a little hard to focus on her middling dramatic ability. She's fine, but out of her element. Smaller performances are much more in tune, especially Brendan Gleeson's reformed thug, and Jim Broadbent's surprisingly hilarious Boss Tweed.

What I appreciate most out of this film, aside from bringing Day-Lewis out of retirement and back with one of his best performances, is how quickly it flies by. The 167 minute running time feels like a brisk two hour blockbuster, and there's enough action and, more importantly, a strong enough story, to keep the film fresh for  almost three hours. The film flows like a piece of great, revisionist literature. There are moments where it drags, but that's most movies. You can't win every scene. But, for what Gangs of New York is, it's as good as it could possibly be. Not the masterpiece, but certainly up there. And the tone Scorsese sets on the piece is excellent. It's a crime drama first, but not foremost. There's a lot of love in this film, for New York, for the people who built it in the streets, and for Day-Lewis himself. And the amount of love Day-Lewis shows is absolutely second to none.