Gangs of New York is an unapologetic mess, whose only saving grace is that it ends by blowing just about everything up. A movie without point or life, it doesn’t even have the grace to run short enough so we can all get the heck out of the theater to run home and forget.
Opening with a disastrously filmed fight scene, Scorsese introduces his characters in a flurry of unintelligible battles and gratuitous pools of snowfall staining blood. Irish immigrants fight home born “natives” to decide who holds sway over the mid-1800’s city of New York. Predictably, the Irish lose their fight along with the life of their leader, Priest Valon. His child son, also predictably, swears revenge on the man who killed him, and runs off to grow old enough to stab people with a bigger knife.
Years pass. Bad music is played. Everything stays pretty much the same. Valon’s son young Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) leaves reform school and returns to the Five Points where his father’s murderer, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) now holds sway. Director Martin Scorsese put a lot of effort into really bringing to life the grit and desperation of the immigrant ridden ghettos of early New York, where Valon heads to seek revenge. Except he gave it so much of his brand of “realism” there is little there worth caring about. Everyone is a thief, a killer, or a vicious barbarian. There is nothing worth fighting for and no one worth caring about. No one is developed with any personality or motivation, beyond the mere existence of their despicable, inhuman, and apparently self-inflicted poverty. If there’s any message anywhere in Gangs of New York, it is that the poor are animals and we’d all be better off if the army just came in and blew them all to bits. The more blood the better.
Unfortunately, Amsterdam’s dreams of blood soaked hands go forgotten when he suddenly finds himself enamored with the man upon whom he intended to wreak his revenge. This goes on for an hour or so, with Amsterdam enjoying a healthy dose of mob boss lifestyle and generally trumped up villainy. One day he wakes up and decides he better start practicing to throw his knife at Bill anyway, though I’ve no idea why he once again changes his mind. At least DiCaprio is convincing, even though the horrid script he has been given offers him nothing to convince us with.
Daniel Day-Lewis is a joke, and does a fine job of playing that role. Disturbing? Maybe, if you find pointless gore to be villainous in and of itself. Otherwise, Bill the Butcher, along with just about every other character in the film is a cartoon, with Day-Lewis doing a better job of fleshing out his cartoon character than some of the other actors, not that in a train wreck like this that means anything.
There is no reason for Cameron Diaz to be in this film. I’m sure she jumped at the chance to be in a Scorsese film, but this is not a Scorsese film… it’s more like something from Michael Bay. Ultimately though, Diaz, who I have supported in the past, has become a horrible spazz and especially in this case has been miserably miscast. She’s blaringly annoying and serves no purpose within the framework of this alleged story. You’ll see much this same character from her next summer in Charlie’s Angels 2, with just a little extra butt shaking.
This is an epic disaster in every sense of the word. When it isn’t boring and slow, it’s bloody and confused instead. Stovepipe hats and muddy streets, though apparently Scorsese doesn’t realize it, do not automatically make it 1846. The only reason I can imagine anyone rushing to Gangs defense is simply because they are unwilling, or somehow unable to admit that the Scorsese goose has stopped laying golden eggs. Scorsese is indecisive and lost creating a world that never decides it has anything worthwhile to say. Decades of work, years of delay, and millions of dollars deliver nothing but a waddling lame duck, fit for instant and blissful obscurity.