Director Martin Scorsese leaves his stamp of cinematic quality on Gangs of New York, a historical and mythological portrait of the immigrant experience in early America (in this case, the Irish in mid-19th century New York). It is masterfully filmed and rich in meticulously constructed visual elements. Here, Civil War-era lower Manhattan is rendered as a squirming and squalid hell hole, teeming with so much vice, corruption, murder and mayhem that it makes Dickens' London look like Disneyland. Life is cheap as rival gangs conduct open warfare in the streets of the Five Points neighborhood (near modern-day Chinatown) and corrupt public officials make backroom deals with warlords in their quest for votes.
Yet the film is problematic. First off, the character names are so hokey, it's hard to take anything they say or do too seriously: Leonardo DiCaprio as "Amsterdam" Vallon? The casting leaves something to be desired as well. Relative heavyweights like Liam Neeson (who gets killed off in the first scene) and Daniel Day-Lewis (as xenophobic gang boss William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting) share marquee space with relative lightweights such as Cameron Diaz (as a gold-hearted grifter with a mysteriously waning accent). Then there is Day-Lewis' characterization, which flirts with caricature from his overwrought mannerisms to his Lt. Columbo take on Brooklynese. DiCaprio, on the other hand, gives one of the best performances of his career as the son of a slain Irish immigrant leader obsessed with vengeance.
Rather than a personal statement (as seen in such Scorsese classics as Mean Streets and Goodfellas), Gangs smacks of spectacle, of artistic control lost to executive meddling. And nearly everything about this overly long $100 million epic feels labored. It is, fittingly, a struggle that mirrors the one at the heart of Gangs: the struggle for survival by the grim laws of natural selection, where the strong secure the opportunity to influence the future and the weak quickly fade into the footnotes of history.
The DVD's special features go a long way toward extracting the fascinating factual history of the Five Points area from myth. Of particular interest is the Discovery Channel Special "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York" and the Five Points Study Guide, which includes a vocabulary tutorial.
Publication date: 06/26/03