Gangs of New York (2002)
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"Don't be silly--there's nothing wrong with your meat. You're still my little butcher boy?"
Gangs of New York was the movie I was most looking forward to this holiday season. Yes, even more than Two Towers. Why? Because I think Martin Scorsese is the most talented film maker of all time. I can honestly say that I've been a fan of every one of his films. Even Boxcar Bertha and the underrated Bringing Out the Dead. I've come to expect quite a bit from the work of Scorsese and it's these expectations that probably left me disappointed with his labor of love project Gangs of New York.
This massive period piece features Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam, a young man who returns to his old home in a lower east side New York (circa 1846) after several years, with revenge on his mind. His target is a bigger-than-life anti-immigration gang leader named William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (played by Daniel Day-Lewis). Bill has clout and owns the city, but with times rapidly changing, Amsterdam represents a threat to his reign.
DiCaprio is all over the place this month, appearing in two extremely high profile movies directed by very respected film makers. And while his performance here is fine, he fares better with his turn in Catch Me if You Can. A big reason for this is Lewis. This guy literally chews up scenery, overshadowing everyone in his path. His portrayal of Bill is both over the top (but in a good way) and sympathetic. Lewis has been absent from cinema since Jim Sheridan's The Boxer, and with Gangs he's back in full force. The rest of the film is populated with terrific supporting players including John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, Henry Thomas, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, and Brendan Gleeson.
At it's heart, Gangs of New York is a simple tale of revenge and uses a turbulent moment in time as it's back drop. Scorsese has labored over this project for years and even had his fair share of problems throughout production (this film was actually slated for release over a year ago). Certainly there are elements of his mafia pictures here, and even shades of Age of Innocence, but for the most part, this is the biggest film he's ever made, and aside from The Two Towers, this is probably the biggest picture of the year in terms of scope.
Sadly, it is perhaps his most flawed movie. Not in terms of story content, but execution. There are choices the director makes that don't always work, be it terrible music cues, or intrusive off screen narration. Unfortunately, many of the Irish accents are botched as well. These uncharacteristic miscues disrupt the flow of the film. And given that this movie is three hours long, that's not a good thing.
Of course, for every flaw there is a treasure to behold in this huge epic. The cinematography and art direction are breathtaking, and as always, Scorsese is a pro with his actors. There is a scene in which Bill tells Amsterdam about his most emotional kill, and the whole sequence is incredibly powerful. Scorsese knows how to motivate and shoot his actors. I also found the ending very low key. Amsterdam and Bill's causes seem absolutely insignificant in the grand scheme of things, and Scorsese handles their final moments of the movie in a surprisingly understated manner.
With all it's flaws and imperfections, it should come as no surprise that Gangs of New York is still one of the best pictures of the year. Scorsese has fashioned his biggest movie, and while it isn't one of his best, it's still a worthy, ambitious effort.
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