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2F2F DVD Contest
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Movie Review:
Gangs of New York
By Matt Singer

01.16.03


If we remember December of 2002 years from now, we should recall a month in which the grand Hollywood machine was put to service for a noble cause. The full power and wealth of the studios were used to bring forth director’s visions, offering them the ability to create or recreate whole worlds in which to tell their stories. I was amazed by the scope and power of The Lord of The Rings: The Two Towers (from New Line Cinema, and beyond that, AOL Time Warner), and now I am almost speechless at the sights to be found in Gangs of New York (From Miramax, and beyond that, Walt Disney), where the viewer is transported to Lower Manhattan circa 1862, in a way that could only be more convincing if Lower Manhattan still looked this way today.


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The media has chosen to focus on the already legendary performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as William “Bill The Butcher” Cutting because it is as good as they say it is. But he is already overshadowing the incredible production design by Dante Ferretti, the costumes by Sandy Powell, and, of course, the direction by Martin Scorcese. How does one man, even Scorcese, make a movie like this? To simply imagine and design and produce such a thing is unfathomable to me, and yet another reason why there is simply nothing like the experience of going to the movies. The story goes that Scorcese has wanted to make this film for decades, and the actual production took about five years. I know people who don’t feel that strongly about breathing!

This amazing production has been created to support a story of revenge and honor. Amsterdam Vallon, played as an adult by Leonardo DiCaprio, watches his father Priest (Liam Neeson) slain in battle by Day-Lewis’ Bill, fighting for control of the neighborhood known as the Five Points. Amsterdam returns sixteen years later to find Bill the most powerful man in the Points, with some of his father’s closest aides now serving him. His plan for revenge entails growing close to The Butcher and gaining his trust, the film’s strongest section. The other important player in the drama is Jenny (Cameron Diaz) a pickpocket who has a strange arrangement with Bill, and a strange attraction to Amsterdam.

DiCaprio, also currently in theaters in Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, has a bigger presence than we’ve previously seen from him, but he still cannot match the intensity of Day-Lewis’ performance, and he, like everyone else in the cast, is overshadowed by the thick-accented, big-moustached Bill. As the villain of the piece, he is the most complex and motivated character we meet - and, wisely, he’s not a force of pure evil. His shades of gray are what make him so fascinating.

Still, the film has more than its share of flaws. At two hours and forty-five minutes, it lets us see too much of this world, leaving us almost shell-shocked instead of desiring more. The film has been building to a confrontation between Bill and Amsterdam and when it comes and goes and the movie continues, the taut pacing slacks and the movie loses some of its focus. The finale comes to involve all of New York City, as Civil Rights draft riots break out just as the Five Points’ gangs comes to blows for a second time. While the film seems freed from any sort of restrictions, and the camera flies from one point to the next like a crazed hummingbird, the ending feels anticlimactic.

But there are worse things to accuse a film of than being too big, too ambitious, almost too interesting (if that is possible). Scorcese links his tale of corruption and immigration to that of the Civil War, democracy, and the very survival of New York City. But the film shines brightest when we feel like visitor’s to a world that no longer exists and are allowed to wander its sights and cheer its heroes. I find it hard to fault a director for trying this hard, but I can’t deny that I enjoyed the first half a lot more than the second. Still, its strengths overshadow its weaknesses. Very early in the film, a man kicks a door open and we are literally introduced to another universe. As I saw it, a chill came over me. And I don’t think it was the air conditioning in the theater kicking in.

 

 
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