Gangs of New York review by The Grim Ringler

Gangs of New York

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this movie is the fact that it almost never got made. Having been dreamed up in the late seventies by Scorsese and set as a dream project for him in the early eighties, the stars never seemed to align for Marty until several years ago when he was finally given the chance to make Gangs. But a funny thing happened on the way to the theater, Marty made a four hour movie, much to the chagrin of the Weinstein’s the commanders of the S.S. Miramax and long and hard was the battle between they and Scorsese on the length of the film, but in the end, after a year of delays, the movie’s out, and it is breathtaking. If you have never seen a Martin Scorsese film, well, kids, welcome to Film 101.

Martin Scorsese, known primarily for having directed Goodfellas and Taxi Driver, really has come into his own and taken the mantle of Great Filmmaker with this film. A grand and sweeping epic, Gangs of New York is the kind of film us fans have been waiting for from him, something down and dirty, with real characters, but also with a real shot at some Oscars. And I tell you what, if Marty wins for Best Director, Jackass will have one less reviewer ‘cause my ass will be stone, cold dead from glee!

Gangs of New York tells the story of early New York, a place ruled by politicians and held in check by gangs. A city that is just three steps from Hell, the squalor of the poor making you wonder what it is all these people have come from that could be worse than what they’ve come to. And at the center of Manhattan and the ‘Five Points’ district is Bill the Butcher, a self-proclaimed Native American (meaning he was born there, though missing the irony that he isn’t really a native American but just an immigrant a couple generations removed) and leader of one faction of gangs in the area, a man as brutal as he is honorable. And on the opposing side is Priest Vallon, the leader of the ‘foreign invaders’ who have come to find their happiness in America but have instead found hatred. And so the film begins as the two opposing gangs battle for the supremacy of New York, a battle that’s both brutal and balletic, the bodies becoming a blur beneath the violence (a gripping scene that loses something in the editing). In the end it is Bill and his Natives that are victorious and Priest is left to die as his young son watches, helpless. In his death is honor though and Bill, while striking down the Dead Rabbits, the clan Priest lead, makes it known that none are to harm the body of Priest for he died honorably and should find the afterlife intact. Bill then orders Vallon’s son to be sent to an orphanage where he will spend the next sixteen years. And when he finally emerges, Amsterdam Vallon is a tool of rage, a ticking time bomb with one mission, and that is to kill the man that murdered his father. Amsterdam quickly works his way into the good graces of Bill and in no time is looked on as a surrogate son and right hand man to the Butcher, finding himself close enough to finally put an end to his sworn foe. Things don’t work out as planned though and in an attempt to end Bill’s life, Amsterdam finds himself caught and at the blade of his father’s murderer. In an act of hatred and humiliation though Bill allows Amsterdam to live, though not unharmed, and Amsterdam is faced with who he is, what he stands for, and what he is willing to risk to destroy Bill the Butcher.

This is a long movie. And when I say long I mean it. And you will feel the length of this movie, but really, all said, it needs to be long. This is not a story you can rush through, it’s a story that needs to unfold slowly, showing more and more of the characters and the era to truly get a feel for what’s at stake. It’s hard to really say how historical a film it is because let’s face it, movies fudge the details a LOT, but you do get a SENSE of history from the film, a sense that the events that unfold here truly did hold the fate of New York in sway. Where you really see that is in the attack on New York staged by the Union army in order to quell a riot. Wow, that is some of the most intense and harrowing filmmaking I’ve seen in a while as the city is suddenly thrust into the middle of a war they have no use for.

This is also a great film, perhaps Scorsese’s most ‘important’. Important in that it has SO much to say – about race relations, the poor, the rich, society, New York, history, love, and more than anything perhaps, how opposing factions can come together for a common good against a common enemy. And its rare to see a filmmaker have the guts Marty shows in the film, going so far as to show blacks being butchered during the riot because the rioters (poor that have risen up to oppose a war draft that essentially sends the poor to die while leaving the rich to remain and live) blame them for the war. And the idea of a national army turning its attentions and war machines on the very people it serves is a chilling reminder of how tenuous our hold on government can be. But the film is not perfect. The relationship between DiCaprio and Diaz isn’t the most believable and while it doesn’t kill the movie by half, it hurts it. Sure, we buy that they are attracted to one another, and even that they lust for one another, but love, eh, I dunno about that. And the accents fade in and out, which again, is a drag, but doesn’t really seem to hurt the film. Perhaps the biggest knock on the thing is its length, which is needed, but really makes you feel like it’s going on and on ad infinitum. I mean, the film is half over and you figure it IS the end when it’s just getting warmed up. Yikes.

But there is a LOT to like, chiefly Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher, who is one of the greatest characters to grace the screen in years. Not so much a monster as a man with very strong convictions and very narrow sight, Bill, bit by bit becomes a real man, a whole man, and not a caricature, which would have been the easy route to take. Instead we get a full picture of a man that can only see things in black and white, in here and there, in native and foreign, a remnant of the past yet precursor to the future. And the greatest thing about the character is the fact that he loves Amsterdam, loves him as a son, and sees him as all but an equal, yet Amsterdam is Irish, and is a foreigner at heart, yet it never bothers Bill. Is Bill an evil man? Yes, but evil because of his fatal flaw – a narrow worldview that perpetually sees everything as Us and Them. He is fighting a war he cannot win, and has slowly begun to see this, the world is changing, New York is changing, and there is nothing he can do about it. He can fight it, and does, but he can never win. He is a dinosaur, a relic. The days of the street-fighter are coming to an end, much like they do so vividly in The Wild Bunch, but and the days of the politician are here. If any one performance is honored at the Oscars, I am hoping it’s Daniel Day-Lewis for portraying a true, honest bastard – a man we can hate, but can also pity.

Also great is the camerawork, which shows New York as if it were a rotting body, the inhabitants no more than maggots feasting on the leftovers as they feast on one another. This is Scorsese at his most cinematic. And the relationship between Bill and Amsterdam is something special, because we see Amsterdam as he fights hard not to love Bill, not to love his enemy, but fails, and loves him despite what a monster he can be. Loves him in fact as a son would love a father, accepting the bad in the man but loving what good there is even more so.

This is a great film. A film that will stand among Martin Scorsese’s best and most loved films, but it is not a film for everyone, as Citizen Kane is not a film for everyone. It’s a smart, insightful, dark look at where America started, and where we all came from, but it’s not terribly pleasant to see that while much has changed, perhaps even more has not. People like Bill the Butcher still exist, still hate any and all foreigners, never seeing the irony that they themselves were once the same, that all our bloods have mixed and mingled in the great melting pot of society and shall always do so. But just as there are Bill’s in the world, there are always people that will, can, and do see more than that, and that work to make sure that the voices of those people are quelled and that the voices of the weak and lost are still heard above the noise. We waited a long time for this movie, and I am happy to say it was more than worth the wait. Martin Scorsese, if there was any doubt, it’s been ended with this film, welcome to greatness. …cr…

9 out of 10 Jackasses

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