One can hardly be a fan of cinema and not be acquainted with the works of Martin Scorsese.
Many revere him as the best film director alive today. His films “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” “Mean Streets” and “Goodfellas” are considered by many to be modern classics that should be studied by anyone interested in film as art. Therefore, his latest work, “Gangs of New York,” has been highly anticipated. After several delays, it finally arrived in theaters on Dec. 20.
There is much to admire about “Gangs.” This is a masterpiece in many of the artistic areas of filmmaking. Technically, it is perfect. Cinematography, costumes, art direction, visual effects, editing and sound all work toward a great achievement.
The acting is superb, especially among the four leads. Daniel Day-Lewis, in his first role since 1997’s “The Boxer,” plays the villain of the film, Bill the Butcher. This is his best work since “My Left Foot.” He has picked up many critics’ awards for best actor and seems a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.
Leonardo DiCaprio returns to the screen in his first major role since the underachieving “The Beach.” Some have said that DiCaprio’s performance falls flat, but the foundation for that comment probably comes from his character being overshadowed by the flamboyant Bill.
DiCaprio’s Amsterdam is a pensive man with an agenda to which he struggles to remain committed. He is a more heroic protagonist than one often finds in a Scorsese film, and DiCaprio’s performance ensures that the audience will commit to this troubled young man.
Cameron Diaz plays the love interest for both the men, and she delivers some of her best work here. Jim Broadbent, fresh off his Oscar win last year for “Iris,” has many of the most humorous lines in the film, as he plays a politician who has learned to work the system. These four, along with many supporting players, flesh out the story of “Gangs.”
The screenplay tells the story of New York City during the Civil War and the gangs that sought to control their parts of the city. Though all the history is not accurate, there is much information about the era that is captivating. The issues of race and religion seem all too contemporary as they play out on the screen.
In an age when many, even one recent presidential candidate, scream about closing U.S. borders to immigrants, the words of Bill the Butcher speaking for those born in America seem all too fresh. There are also class issues, with the rich and the politicians recognizing that the poor are sometimes essential, but other times expendable.
Scenes concerning the Civil War, and those avoiding the draft, are fresh as we rarely think of those from distant history who had no interest in fighting for their country. All the sweeping epic moments of this screenplay work very well.
On the other hand, there are some problems with the personal story. A betrayal two-thirds of the way into the film seems far too clichéd. This same reason for betraying a friend has been in a hundred films, and the audience sees it coming far too early.
Also, the romance could have been more developed. When the two most likable characters in a film end up together, one wants to feel more emotional for them. As brilliantly as the film succeeds in its larger stories, it fails to deliver a perfect film in the moments when the audience should be caring the most.
“Gangs of New York” has made a lot of “Top Ten Lists” for 2002. It deserves to be there, because it is one of the best-made films of the year. It also deserves to be on the lists because there is plenty of substance to hold the interest of anyone who loves a historical epic.
Regrettably though, the film falls into the same trap of another exquisitely made movie of 2002, “The Road to Perdition.” Both are expertly created artistic achievements with stellar technical and acting credentials. Both are ultimately tales of revenge.
And both could have used a little more heart.
Roger Thomas is pastor of NortheastBaptistChurch in Atlanta.
MPAA Rating: R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language
Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan
Cast: Amsterdam Vallon: Leonardo DiCaprio; Bill the Butcher: Daniel Day-Lewis; Jenny Everdeane: Cameron Diaz; Priest Vallon: Liam Neeson; “Boss” Tweed: Jim Broadbent; Happy Jack: John C. Reilly; Johnny: Henry Thomas; Monk: Brendan Gleeson.