March 6, 2003

Gangs Stillborn

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Taglined with “America Was Born In The Streets,” Gangs of New York is the post 9-11 tribute to our homeland’s Irish history from one of the greats, Martin Scorcese. However, after a solid start and middle, Gangs ultimately failed in its concluding moments.

The film surrounds Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio) who returns to Manhattan seventeen years after witnessing his father’s murder. His father was killed in a strictly knives and fists gang fight among the city’s top figures, which is ‘the way of the gun’ throughout the movie. Upon his return the man responsible for the rampant political corruption is the slayer of Vallon’s father, Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). Amsterdam’s main concern is avenging his father’s death. He enters Bill’s select circle of sharp politics and powerful influence with small favors and develops a tensely close bond with the slayer himself. Amsterdam, at one point, saves Bill’s life. It is at moments like this when the viewer can’t help but think that Bill is replacing Amsterdam’s father, as they have uncharacteristic heart-to-heart conversations and allow each other into their dark worlds.

From the return to 1863 Manhattan until Bill discovers Amsterdam’s deceptive plans, Gangs builds its storyline well. The unique display of 19th century New York is stunning. The standout scene is when Bill describes the killing of Amsterdam’s father unknowing that it is to the victim’s son he is confessing “he’s the only man I ever killed worth remembering.” While the scene possibly redeems the movie from its interest-killing tangents in the second half, it briefly shows a dynamic between the generations and characters that goes underdeveloped. Both men had fathers killed in gang fights involving the city. There is a bond of loss and American pride between the two men and their interactions are the high point of the film.

There is a distinct flow of twenty-something excitement and fear that the film embodies as Amsterdam begins the dual role of being Bill’s number one sidekick and seeing if other people are interested in bringing justice to the streets. The film descends to mediocrity when the rudimentary vengeance arises and each side takes on its token role. Amsterdam’s ultimate plan of killing Bill is terribly thought out. The scene when Bill and Amsterdam first clash marks the beginning of the film’s downfall. There is also a certain negative affect with the character of Jenny (Diaz), a pickpocket; as her involvement grew, the story diverged to attention-span challenging and underachieving. Her role never developed from sleeping with both the good and the bad guy, and trying to flee the city when the climactic battle begins.

Previews and magazine articles have been headlining the film for close to a year claiming it to rank with Scorcese’s Goodfellas and Raging Bull. Such classics are known not only for their aggressive plot, but for their developed and multi-layered characters as well. Scorcese’s classics are Italian in both actors and storyline. Gangs, lacking good Italian actors (DiCaprio as Amsterdam), plot or lifestyle, goes through its 2 hours and 45 minutes without a sense of direction as it loses its point of view and meaning. While the film is visually stimulating, it has nothing “Scorcese” about it, with the exception of Day-Lewis’ acting. The legend that some call “The British DeNiro” came back from a five-year absence to give an amazing performance. A more resonant script, better casting, and a shorter running time could have given this film what it needed. In the end, Gangs didn’t live up to the hype. Sorry, Martin.

Archived article by Dan Cohen