Gangs of New York (2002)


Ebert: Rolling Stone: TV Guide:1/2

Warning, minor plot points revealed!

We started our Dicapri-Weekend with the much anticipated Martin Scorsese film Gangs of New York.   Ever since I saw the first preview of this movie I was excited about it.  It had the biggest and most top hats I'd ever seen in a movie trailer and I knew it was my destiny to go see those hats.  I'm not really sure why the whole top hat thing went out of fashion.  If this film does noting else, I hope that it reminds people of a kind and gentle time when men wore top hats and  women were impressed by men who wore top hats.

Unfortunately, the top hats alone cannot help this become the movie it should have been.  The story goes like this;  In 1846, New York City's 5 Points were ruled by vicious maniac road warrior type gangs.  One gang called the "Dead Rabbits" is at war with another gang called the "Natives."  Priest Vallon versus William 'Bill the Butcher' Cutting.  In the opening battle, and probably my favorite scene in the picture, Priest is cut down in front of his son and defeated by Bill.  The Dead Rabbit Society is no more.  Bill the Butcher has ascended to the throne of the 5 Points.  We then skip ahead about 15 years to see Priest's grown son return to the Points as Amsterdam.  Amsterdam has one mission in life, to avenge his father.  Bill the Butcher must die and Amsterdam has come to see that it is done.

Now, if that was all there was to the film this would have been a great movie indeed.  It immediately immersed the viewer in the time, feel and stench of the era.   It could have remained a period retribution story and probably would have become the fanciest vengeance movie ever made.  But Scorsese unfortunately wanted us to learn something, so the perfect little core of the movie is placed on a convoluted and hazy backdrop of class, draft riots, politics, and race issues.  This overly rich tapestry fractures the reprisal tale and ultimately diminishes the entire flow of story which Scorsese is famous for.  

Goodfellas and Casino were two of the best films of the 90's.  And one of the reasons they were great is because they had tremendous momentum.  They told you who the characters were in the first few seconds of the film and then followed them constantly and with no distraction.  It didn't matter where or when the stories were taking place.  The focus was all inside the bubble of the wonderful characters created by Pesci and De Niro.  In Gangs of New York we meet the intense characters created by DiCaprio and Day-Lewis but Scorsese immediately pops their bubbles and they're swept away in the socio-political undercurrent of the period.  

I know it sounds stupid to condemn the historic importance of the movie but I honestly didn't understand it at all.  I vaguely comprehend what was taking place at the time but I do not feel it was necessary to focus so much of the film on it.  Or perhaps the entire film should have been about the race issues and the societal upheaval of the time.  Either way a decision should have been made to go one way or the other and then stick to that direction.  Period vengeance piece or political docu-drama. 

The final reason that the story left no great impression on me is that the ending inspires you to forget about it.  As we see New York develop into the great metropolis of the 20th century, we see the graves of Vallon and Cutting in the foreground become lost in time.  The story becomes one of millions that make up the history of New York City and you are left wondering if there are any more interesting ones that could have been told.