March 5, 2011

The Streets Run Red

After having to sing their music everyday for the better part of a month, I find myself suddenly very interested in the absurdities that make up the heavy metal band, Manowar. As far as I know, they take themselves completely seriously, but everything about them is so cliche, from their leather costumes to their love of hotrods. If my memory serves, they were first created as a parody of how stupid metal had become, making songs about norse mythology, swords and fantasy, brotherhood, and just how all around awesome metal is. But, then they got popular, and have since continued to do the exact same thing for the past two decades. Their music is, quite simply, awful, but so ludicrous that I sort of love it. Any band that makes it a mission of their's to expel "wimps and posers" from the hall is alright by me.

What does this have to do with Gangs of New York? Absolutely nothing. It was just on my mind and I couldn't think of anything poignant to say as an intro.

We Own These Streets Bitch!!

Gangs of New York
tells the story of tumultuous time in American history. The Civil War is ravaging the nation, the first mandatory draft is imminent, and gangs rule the streets of New York, the most notorious of which is i headed by the well spoken, sadistic, racist Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, who rules the area known as The Five Points with an iron fist, treating everyone who isn't a "native" with scorn and ridicule. The Irish get it particularly bad. Into this picture comes Amsterdam Vallon, an American born Irishman whose father was killed sixteen years ago by Cutting. He enters the frame with the intention of avenging his father's death, but as he begins to get closer to Cutting, he finds himself conflicted as The Butcher takes him under his wing. Eventually though, Cutting's cruelty towards the Irish and his treacherous ways sway Amsterdam, and soon, the two are locked in a brutal fight over control of The Five Points as society crumbles around them.

Based on the book of the same name, Gangs of New York is an enthralling look at a setting untapped by the cinematic medium, helped in large part by a solid script by Kenneth Lonergan, Steve Zallian and Jay Cocks. The story takes some liberties with the facts, but, as far as I can tell, it's a very accurate look at abolitionist era America. Some characters aren't really given enough to do, but the main players are very fleshed out, and the story moves at a good clip, culminating in an intense and horrifically violent final act. Solid stuff.

Leonardo DiCaprio teams up with Martin Scorcese for the first time, and it shows. Of the four times DiCaprio has worked with the american icon, this is easily the weakest. That's not to say it's a bad performance, it's actually fantastic. But, now, since we have three other works to compare it to, it falters. That being said, DiCaprio does very well as Amsterdam. As the man through whose eyes we see this epic unfold, DiCaprio shows a wide breadth of emotions and depth. His character is a focused one, which is a nice contrast to the wild men about him.

However, the real star of this thing is Daniel Day-Lewis as Cutting. Holy crap, can this mad do anything wrong, excluding Nine, that is? Day-Lewis simply amazing as this sadistic gangster, elegantly painting a portrait of an American tyrant. His performance is dripping with intensity, laced with biting humor, and filled to the brim with pure, unmitigated evil! So good is Day-Lewis that whenever he is on screen, everything else just seems to stop because you can only watch him. That man is a God!

Cameron Diz rounds out the main triumvirate as Jenny, a pickpocket who steals Amsterdam's heart, but it goes without saying that she is not up to matching wits with DiCaprio or Day-Lewis. I mean, she's good, certainly a lot better than usual, but her's is the one sour grape amongst the handful of sweet ones.

Other players include Jim Broadbent as the head of Tammany Hall, William Tweed, Brendan Gleeson as mercenary Walter "Monk" McGinn, and John C. Reilly as crooked cop "Happy" Jack Mulraney. Liam Neeson shows up in the beginning as Amsterdam's father. Pretty solid cast, if I do say so myself, and they all do excellent jobs.

Is that a milkshake?

Gangs of New York is probably director Martin Scorsese's most ambitious work to date, if only because the scale of the events he is portraying is so much bigger than we've come to expect from him. Sure, the main story focuses on a small group of individuals as has become tradition for the director's best works, but the backdrop is something far from intimate. Not only did Scorsese have to craft a well told story about corruption and violence, he also had to painstakingly recreate 1860s New York City, a New York City without such recognizable landmarks as the Empire State Building or the Brooklyn Bridge. He does an admirable job, painting a slick portrait of a darker time. Everything, from the cobblestone streets, to the costumes, to the makeup, looks entirely convincing.

It's also Scorsese's ugliest film, in terms of violence. While most of his other films excelled at small bursts of brutal, but somewhat elegant bloodshed, Gangs of New York pulls an about face in the first five minutes, showing, down to the minutest detail, a pitched battle between two gangs. The violence in this movie sickening, but that's the way it should have been. Guns and garrote wires are replaced with axes, knives, and often, your own two hands; you won't see someone getting brutally fish hooked in Goodfellas. Blood flows freely, staining the ground and the people around it. A man has a meat cleaver thrown into his back and is then beaten to death with a club. A man is killed and then strung up to a light pole for everyone to see. It's gory stuff.

The scale of the violence is also grander, often showing hundreds of people engaged in combat. The finale deals with the New York City Draft Riots, and you get the sense that Scorsese really wanted to show us everything. You feel like you see every stone thrown, every building burned, every life lost. It's a tense, horrific scene, that is one of the best sequences of pitched bloodshed ever put on film.

Scorsese does a masterful job of handling the scale, always having it add to the story of Amsterdam and Cutting, never having it overshadow it. Though the scale is the biggest he's had to deal with, Scorsese makes sure the story is always about the duel of wills between the two men. His stupendous direction of actors comes shining through; both DiCaprio and Day-Lewis turn in really excellent scenes.

Everything about Gangs of New York just works. Scorsese, once again, crafts an engrossing crime drama, but goes one step further than that and beautifully recreates an ugly and dark time in American history. Watching this movie, you gain a new appreciation for the times we live in. Sure, they aren't great, but they are so much better than they used to be. As the final montage plays, showing the genesis of New York from the dirty crime infested city it was to the cultural center of the world that is, you can't help but smirk at small fact. The founding fathers are on the bills, but the founding crooks ruled for far longer than anyone cares to acknowledge.


  1. That caption under Day-Lewis' picture deserves to win this week's CC, hands down.

  2. Excellent review,
    I greatly enjoyed this film as well, DDL was just amazing...
    I thought Di Caprio was slightly miscast though, his performance in The Aviator was infinitely better.
    Great film though, Scorsese has always been reliable.

  3. Nifty review good sir. There was a lot in GANGS that I really dug, though I did find it a tad sloppy on the whole.

    Not that I didn't find Adrien Brody deserving, but I coulda given DDL the Oscar for that monologue alone!

  4. @Fletch: I'll make a banner for it and put it up with this week's edition, but the real winner will still be one of yours.

    @Jack: No doubt. I feel like DiCaprio was just figuring out how Scorsese worked, and the fact that the scale was so much bigger didn't help matters. He's still quite good though.

    @Hatter: Agreed. DDL deserved the Oscar for this, but if he won here, he probably wouldn't have won for THERE WILL BE BLOOD, which would have probably gone down was the biggest outrage in Oscar history.