Friday, June 11, 2010

2002 - Gangs of New York

Uncharacteristically, I failed to notice that the previous post (reviewing Chicago) was the 100th post of Matt vs. the Academy. Surely, a celebration is in order. Perhaps I could follow in the footsteps of 80s sitcoms and have a clip show, highlighting the best moments of the past 100 posts ... or not. I'm also fast nearing 100 films watched, as well. Plus, next week, this project will mark its 300th day. Meaningless milestones all around.

Last night, the next 2002 Best Picture nominee was popped into the DVD drive...

Gangs of New York
Martin Scorsese
Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan
Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson
Academy Awards:
10 nominations
0 wins

New York, 1846. In the slum known as Five Points, two rival gangs prepare for a territorial battle. On one side are the American-born "Natives", led by Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis), nicknamed The Butcher for two reasons - one, he is particularly fierce when it comes to murder, and two, he is actually a butcher. Challenging the Natives is the gang of Irish immigrants called the "Dead Rabbits", led by Priest Vallon (Neeson), who is not actually a priest. The two groups viciously murder each other, culminating in Cutting's fatal stabbing of Vallon, a grisly sight witnessed by the eyes of Vallon's young son Amsterdam, who is then shipped off to an orphanage.

Sixteen years later, Amsterdam (DiCaprio), now a grown man, returns to the Five Points with vengeance on his mind and a genetically convenient change in appearance, just enough so as to make him unrecognisable to Cutting. With the help of old friend Johnny (Thomas), Amsterdam wheedles his way into Cutting's inner circle, gaining his trust and falling for one of his playthings, Jenny (Diaz). As he waits for the opportune moment to strike, the country meanwhile is in the midst of the Civil War and New York City comes closer and closer to civil unrest due to President Lincoln's new military draft, disliked by the poor immigrant population.

The opening pre-battle scenes of Gangs of New York are intensely suspenseful as they segue into a battle sequence that has all the elements of a good grunge music video. In fact, Scorsese uses a somewhat stylised technique throughout. There is a dream-like quality that pervades the picture, chiefly due to the starkly interesting design which consists primarily of browns and greys punctuated with well-placed splashes of colour. For instance, in battle, the "Natives" are all dressed in bland earth tones with a strong blue ribbon somewhere on their person. The "Dead Rabbits" are similarly attired but with red stripes featuring on their clothing. It's almost like Survivor.

Most of the publicity material for the film seems to indicate that this is a story about the birth of America, with specific regard to its violent in-fighting. Oddly, though, I felt the personal stories of the main characters were far more substantial. So much so that the idea of national legacy hardly occurred to me. Granted, there is great reference to the Civil War and to immigrants and to class struggles. Plus, the film's final images are of the Lower Manhattan skyline as it appeared through the years, dissolving chronologically from 1862 through to present day. If that weren't blatant enough, the closing credits feature a U2 song called "The Hands That Built America", followed by sound effects of modern day New York, car horns and sirens blazing. Nonetheless, the more intimate themes of personal vengeance and loyalty gained a far deeper hold on me. Sorry, Marty.

Gangs of New York also marks the first in a recent string of collaborations between Scorsese and DiCaprio, a highly successful pairing considering three of their four outings have garnered Best Picture nominations. The fourth, Shutter Island, will be eligible for next year's Oscars and could very well make it a perfect score. Scorsese's previous favourite lead actor, Robert De Niro - who, incidentally, has also appeared in three Best Picture-nominated Scorsese films - has no reason to feel dismissed, though. To some extent, he still has a presence in this film in the form of Daniel Day-Lewis (pictured) who appears to be doing an homage to the Taxi Driver star. Imagine Robert De Niro playing Tony Soprano. That's the sensation one gets when watching Day-Lewis portray Bill Cutting, squinty eyes and all.

DiCaprio is an often underrated actor due to his pretty boy persona, which I've never quite understood, considering the majority of his roles are actually quite gritty. Here, he is affecting yet restrained, especially alongside Day-Lewis' extravagant portrayal. Cameron Diaz finds her own, avoiding her regular giggly characterisation. The rest of the principal cast also deliver strong performances, including the always brilliant Brendan Gleeson, and two of my favourites, Jim Broadbent and John C. Reilly. And keep an eye out for a cameo from Scorsese himself, appearing very briefly as an upper class patriarch.


  1. I'll have to watch the film again, but I love Leo!!!! =) He's very gritty. I think it's because you see his struggle, and the audience roots for him. I just finished watching The Departed =)))))))) a tragedy.

  2. Matt: "It's almost like Survivor."

    Except in Gangs, when the "tribe has spoken," you're dead.

    Congratulations on your 100 post, Matt. Comments on Gangs of New York are forthcoming.

  3. Hey Matt,

    I agree DiCaprio is very underrated. Some of his early roles were outstanding. Check out Basketball Diaries (heroin addict) and What's Eating Gilbert Grape (mentally challenged).

    Sorry to send through comments, but I could not find a contact form. I wanted to discuss a way to collaborate. We just launched a new movie site, Rankography, and you can set up a profile that describes your blog and includes a link to your site. You can then rank your favorite movies in existing categories or add any category you can dream up.

    If your rankings are interesting, then your profile should generate traffic to your site as our membership grows.

  4. Martin Scorsese has to be considered, along with a select few others, as one of the finest filmmakers of the past 40 years. Yet, from The Academy's perspective, his films often don't fit their mold. Oh, they receive plenty of nominations, but wins in the big categories of picture and director were ever elusive. They finally relented with The Departed, possibly because 'overdue' had become almost a joke, and possibly because that year, his film finally aligned itself with less "Academy-Friendly" competition.

    In 2002, Gangs of New York, was nominated for 10 Oscars - and took home none. It was one away from tying that ignominious record held by The Turning Point and The Color Purple. Yet, I can see why. You are not going to get a happy picture from Scorsese. He's drawn to tortured, guilt-ridden, self-absorbed characters. I find myself often admiring his movies more than loving them.

    With Gangs of New York, I had no such conflict. I both admired and loved the movie. Scorsese gave us a look at an era and historical setting, hardly ever addressed in film. I guess as someone of Irish ancestry, born and raised in New York, I found it particularly interesting. I'll say flat out that Daniel Day-Lewis was magnificent. It may have been a caricature, but it was a triumphant one. The scene alone of him draped in the American Flag, talking of honorable men was enough to win him an Oscar.

    Like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, when Day-Lewis was off screen, Gangs became just a little bit duller, and when he acted opposite DiCaprio, Diaz and the supporting players, it became a little harder to notice them, as good as they otherwise were. Leonard DiCaprio is quite good at playing conflicted characters, and he would give even greater performances in his subsequent films for Scorsese.

    As for the production design, it was old school and quite amazing. George Lucas pointed out to Martin Scorsese one day while visiting the set, that he could have done all this with CGI, but it just wouldn't have had the same effect, I don't believe.

    Some of Scorsese's music choices were let's say daring. The primary score was very good, although Howard Shore seemed to slip in a few melodic notes from his Lord of the Rings score every so often.

    I'm still of mixed opinion on the climactic battle at the end and the inclusion of the draft riots. Somehow, I feel it needed either less or more attention. For the record, I think the final shot was daring. Yes, it reminded us that we were watching a movie, but as a coda, it worked.