By John H. Foote
This massive, flawed epic was delayed a full year after 9/11, Miramax believing it was immoral to release the film at Christmas, just four months after terrorists brought down the World Trade Centre. Those towers figure prominently in the films’ closing moments, so the delay made sense. However who knew anything about the film knew that Martin Scorsese was still cutting the film with editor Thelma Schoonmaker, his long time friend and among his inner circle. No question, they had on their hands a colossal amount of footage that needed cutting down to a reasonable length. That also provided drama because Harvey Weinstein wanted a two hour cut and Martin Scorsese had told him the film would be three hours at least, possibly longer. The two stubborn men argued viciously, and there were threats of violence between the massive brute Weinstein and diminutive Scorsese, all five feet four inches. But make no mistake, with Scorsese, the Miramax chief had encountered a director he could neither bully nor intimidate. Scorsese was fearless when it came to his films, no one told him how to edit his work. No one.
A year later, in 2002, the film, nearly three hours, opened to middling reviews, some critics declaring it a masterpiece, while the honest ones pointed out the flaws stating if you can overlook those glaring flaws, sure the film might be a masterpiece. But the truth was those flaws prevent it from being one of the cinema’s greatest works, because it is Scorsese, I just could not get by them.
Scorsese had been trying to get the film made since the late seventies, and finally Harvey Weinstein agreed that Miramax would be in the Scorsese business.
The film explores the wars between gangs in Civil War period New York City, two in particular, those loyal to William Cutting aka Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) and those who fought with Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) murdered by Bill years before.
Gallons’ son Amsterdam (Leonardo Di Caprio) now an adult, returns to the city to avenge his father, but knows the only way to do so is to to ingratiate himself into Cuttings’ inner circle, to get close to him. He manages to do just that, becoming Cutting’s protege, all the while keeping the secret he is a Vallon, and hellbent on killing Bill.
With an iron fist and his deadly blades, Bill runs the five Points, intimidating the politicians who come into the area, killing without hesitation anyone who opposes him. Vallon watches all of this, learning from Bill, and wondering how he will kill Bill when the time comes.
He falls in love with a pretty pick pocket with bizarre connections to Bill, and Jenny (Cameron Diaz) is caught between them when the war ensues.
Scorsese shot the film indoors at the massive Cinecietta Studios in Italy, building a complete restoration of the Five Points as well as interiors for key scenes. There was no natural lighting used for the film, which casts a strange pall over the look of the picture. Now considering there are people cooking and with lit flames in the street, sure it would be a smoky environment but for me, there was something oddly artificial about the exteriors. That is just the beginning of the issues I had with the film. That it was Scorsese meant the film would have moments of greatness, and indeed it opens with a breathtaking scene of two gangs getting ready for battle in the street. But these moments are too few and the flaws within the film show their teeth pulling apart the genius. As fine an actor as Leonardo Di Caprio might be, he struggles with an underwritten role and being firmly in the shadow of the astonishing Daniel Day-Lewis.
Broad, larger than life performance, Day-Lewis is extraordinary as Cutting, or Bill the Butcher. Spitting each word he says like acidic poison, his eyes staring his opponents down with such contemptual fury it becomes unsettling to watch. Portraying Bill with an intensity that becomes both alarming and frightening it is an exceptional performance. Is it over the top? Yes. Does it work? Perfectly. So confident is Bill about his standing in the community of the Five Points he can behave any way he wants, and while many despise him for his contempt for immigrants, he truly did respect Priest Vallon, the only man it seems he truly respected, even though he slaughtered him.
Wildly, woefully miscast in Cameron Diaz as Jenny, the woman between Bill and young Vallon. A light comedic actress at best, AT BEST, Diaz is clearly out of her element and league here. With a wandering accent, it might be the worst performance given in a Scorsese movie.
John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleason, and so many other great character actors have small roles in the film, and are all superb, but the film belongs to Day-Lewis, whose towering performance obliterates everyone in his path.
Though flawed, and even Scorsese agreed it was, it was still a towering achievement and nominated for ten Academy Awards. Harvey Weinstein initially decided Scorsese was going to win an overdue Oscar for the film and began an intense campaign for the director. However when it became clear his musical Chicago (2002) was going to be the film to beat, he withdrew his support for Scorsese and threw everything he had behind Chicago and director Rob Marshall. On Oscar night is was indeed Chicago which prevailed, winning six including a misplaced Best Picture award to nothing for Gangs of New York. Though not among his greatest films, Gangs of New York was a powerful, visceral experience that demands to be experienced.
The final image is truly haunting. As young Vallon and Jenny visit the grave of Bill, the images freezes and we pass forward through time. The city grows, the bridge connects Brooklyn to Manhattan, towers rise, including the World Trade Center and the tiny graveyard becomes near forgotten, the grass and weeds covering the graves. It is possibly the most moving image in the entire film, set to the strains of U2’s urgent, exciting song The Hands That Built America.
Hands no doubt, dipped in blood.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.