Gangs of New York



USA 2002 : Martin Scorsese : 165mins (approx)

first rough reaction

Well, first reaction is, it’s a bit of a dog. Overlong, pseudo-epic, padded out to a tedious length… impression is of a great director desperately trying to crown his career and finally win his absurdly overdue oscar – spending a huge amount of time and money, and getting the details of locations, costumes, props, etc spot on … and getting so involved in the project that he overlooked the fact that the script it’s all based on makes no sense.

At first it’s a very standard dad-worshipping revenge plot, with DiCaprio seeking to slay the man (Day-Lewis) who slew his dear dad (Liam Neeson) at the start. Then halfway through DiCaprio starts to get on with Day-Lewis, who is as much in need of a son as DiCaprio is in need of a father. Interesting, ambiguous stuff starts to intrude – although the actual big speech by Day-Lewis is very odd (draped in a US flag, he ends up rambling: “I never had a son [long pause] civilisation is crumbling”.

Then for no good reason we revert to the desperately boring dad-worship stuff of Road to Perdition and thousands of other American movies. DiCaprio suddenly turns vengeful again and goes after Day-Lewis. Except it doesn’t turn out right and Day-Lewis comes out on top. He’s all set to slice Leo up good and proper (he’s a butcher by trade). Then he suddenly and very unconvincingly decides just to let him go, except he says he’ll make him a Barnum-style freak… five minutes later, we see DiCaprio, and apart from a few bruises etc he looks exactly the same as before. The film never really regains its stride after this mis-step. The ending is a dog’s breakfast – we build up and build up to the climactic confrontation between the two gang forces, but it doesn’t happen – the clash coincides with the ‘draft riots’ that are rampaging through Manhattan, so the army get involved and it all goes out of the window.

By this stage Scorsese is reduced to telling his story with endless captions informing us where the action is taking place – earlier, he had placed far too much reliance on very old-fashioned shots of newspaper headlines, woodcuts, period photographs, frenzied commentary from morse-code readers, awkward voiceover from DiCaprio (his voice a strained mix of Irish and Yankee accents). It’s very far from Scorsese’s best work, and though a Best Director win is possible, it would be a travesty if this was to win where GoodFellas and Raging Bull couldn’t. And let’s not even mention Casino or his greatest gang-land movie, Mean Streets.

But there are enough incidental compensations to make it a moderately watchable experience – Jim Broadbent’s permanent air of semi-distractionas the breezily, effortlessly corrupt Boss Tweed, and Brendan Gleeson turning in the quietest of all the performances as the barber Monk. On the downside, Cameron Diaz doesn’t get much to do – but fares better than the hapless Henry Thomas and a conspicuously underused John C Reilly. DiCaprio is adequate, but it’s very much Day-Lewis’s movie – he sounds like De Niro, looks like Popeye, but is totally magnetic. There’s a priceless monologue (“dis poor liddle wabbit”) that will be the one they play when he gets nominated for Best Actor. It’s as if he’s acting in another movie – a much better movie than this inert, bloated, self-important bit of bombast.

11th December, 2002
(seen same day, MPC Wardour Street, London)

For the newer revision of this review click here

Alternatively for a feature of Daniel Day-Lewis’ accent and where he got it from click here…

by Neil Young