Scorsese's Epic Lesson in Butchery
One of the most interesting things about Martin Scorsese's epic "Gangs of New York" is not that it was yet another movie he never won an Oscar for but that he originally tried to make it back in 1978. The fact that nearly a quarter of a century later Scorsese finally managed to make the movie shows to some extent how passionate he was about the storyline which focused on a little known era in American History. Unfortunately whilst he may have been passionate about the storyline, the final version of "Gangs of New York" is by no means perfect, by no means his best movie and despite being entertaining just doesn't feel quite right, it's as if there was behind the scenes bickering and a rush to get it finished.
Several years after witnessing his father killed at the hands of Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis - There Will Be Blood) in a gangland fight, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio - The Beach) returns to the five points area of New York with revenge on his mind. With the help of some immigrants and a clever pickpocket Vallon plans his revenge on his father's murderer.
When you watch "Gangs of New York" one thing really sticks out and that is despite all the gloss from the impressive sets and recreation of the period, the underlying storyline feels rather flat. What I mean is that the main storyline is about Amsterdam's quest for revenge and this is merged with a romance, both of which are honestly nothing especially new. Yes, the fact that the movie educates us about a little known period in America's history is interesting but the fact that the underlying themes feel for a better word mundane makes it feel like several other movies.
Part of the trouble is that when you look at the storyline which focuses on the revenge there are times it feels like it loses focus. You can't but help notice the simmering undercurrent of tension between Amsterdam and Bill especially when Amsterdam first returns to the Five Points. But then as the movie progresses this element is lost, the tension goes walk abouts and then when it suddenly returns to the fore it feels slightly weird as if all of a sudden the screen writers remembered what the movie was about.
Interestingly the point where the tension goes missing is where "Gangs of New York" focuses more on the romance between Amsterdam and Jenny. But the balance between the two storylines never really works and they feel like too separate entities poorly merged to make one longer movie. This element is not helped by the fact that the romance between Amsterdam and Jenny lacks any real passion which is heightened by that lack of chemistry between DiCaprio and Diaz which let's be honest is quite surprising.
I actually point the finger of blame on the rather uneasy blend of storylines on issues with the editing. I get a real sense that Scorsese shot a lot more footage, much of which both expanded on the storylines but helped blend them together, but to make it more commercially acceptable and a more reasonable length, which at 160 minutes is already long, a lot of important footage was left on the cutting room floor. You just need to take notice how some scenes never really flow together causing it more than ever to feel like separate storylines. Plus certain scenes, such as the opening battle which is full of slow motion shots, just feels wrong even a little too arty for a commercial movie.
But now the good things and "Gangs of New York" is visually impressive with amazing costumes and huge sets which recreate New York from the 1860s which is all the more amazing when you learn that it was shot in Italy. Scorsese has obviously taken a lot of effort to try and build up the scene, the way New York was, the racial tensions between natives and the Irish and this on its own makes "Gangs of New York" an interesting movie. Even if the storyline does feel at times a little ordinary the setting definitely makes up for it.
As with any Scorsese movie he has assembled a very impressive cast of prominent actors and for once Robert De Niro is not one of them. But whilst Daniel Day-Lewis excels in the role of Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting it may come as no surprise that De Niro was once considered for the role. Personally I feel Day-Lewis brings something different to the movie, which De Niro wouldn't have, but also managed to deliver similar psychotic moments which De Niro does so well making Bill a very powerful character.
Alongside Daniel Day-Lewis is Leonardo DiCaprio who although I am not a huge fan of shows why he is such an in demand actor and has now become a firm favourite when it comes to Scorsese's movies having also appeared in "The Aviator", "The Departed" and also " Shutter Island". Performance wise it is a bit of a roller coaster for DiCaprio, the scenes where you can see Amsterdam plotting his revenge are brilliant, yet those scenes where his relationship with Jenny are focussed upon feel strained and poorly acted.
Whilst Day-Lewis and DiCaprio are the undeniable stars of "Gangs of New York" the movie does feature other good performances from the likes of Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly and also Liam Neeson who all add to the epic feel of the movie
What this all boils down to is that "Gangs of New York" comes across as a hugely impressive and ambitious movie which although very entertaining always feels at odds with itself. On one hand it feels like Scorsese is trying to educate us about America in the 1860s whilst on the other hand it feels like a chopped up and slightly rushed movie hacked about to make it commercially acceptable. It lacks the balance and finesse often associated with Scorsese's works and whilst it is impressive doesn't rank as highly as some of Scorsese's other notable movies such as "Goodfellas" and "Raging Bull". Saying all that there is one very good reason to watch "Gangs of New York" and that is for the stunning performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting.