Gangs of New York is too damned short.

Reviews of the latest films.
Dec. 20 2002 5:16 PM

Let It Bleed

Gangs of New York is too damned short.

Leonardo DiCaprio gets tough
Leonardo DiCaprio gets tough

In Martin Scorsese's long-anticipated Gangs of New York (Miramax), Daniel Day-Lewis plays William Cutting, aka "Bill the Butcher," who, in his stove-top hat and long maroon waistcoat, is almost a demonic twin of Uncle Sam: HE DOESN'T WANT YOU! Ruminating on the "Hibernian hordes" disembarking from ships and settling on Manhattan's Lower East Side, he assures Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) that he'd "shoot each and every one of them before they set foot on American soil." To drive home the point he cheerfully cleaves a few in twain. A "Native" American ("born rightwise to this land"), he doesn't want his people competing for jobs with "the bastard sons of Erin" or giving the country over "to them who had no hand in fighting for it." So, he makes the immigrants fight him for it every day, with knives and razors and cudgels.

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Although Cutting didn't exist, some of these battles (and the gangs, with colorful names like Shirt Tails, Plug Uglies, and Daybreak Boys) were recounted in Herbert Asbury's 1928 chronicle Gangs of New York, which Scorsese reportedly read in 1970 and has been itching to adapt ever since. It isn't hard to see what turned him on. Scorsese grew up steeped in a different sort of tribal lore in Little Italy, and Asbury's book offered a rare glimpse at those same streets from the 1840s through the 1860s, before his Italian ancestors showed up. He also saw a chance to make an American movie in the tradition of Luchino Visconti's The Leopard (1963), Bernardo Bertolucci's 1900 (1976), and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Once Upon a Time in America (1984): a bloody, wide-screen epic that mixes elemental stories of love and revenge with a vision of the larger historical forces that shaped the capitalist society we know today.

The movie, from a script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan, is not the disaster that has long been rumored (and that its studio, Miramax, evidently thinks it is). Whatever its fate at the box office, it's a magnificent achievement—holes, tatters, crudities, screw-ups, and all. The problem is that a definitive assessment is impossible as long as we're stuck with a 2-hour-and-45-minute cut in lieu of Scorsese's preferred 3-and-a-half-hour version. It's rarely a good idea to review a movie one hasn't seen—and the longer cut, if it ever shows up, could prove to be deadly. But I doubt it. The film in its current state cries out for a wider canvas, for more and longer scenes of the universe outside its central triangle of movie stars and ham-fisted melodrama.

Gangs of New York begins as the story of a boy, Amsterdam Vallon, and his tribe, and Scorsese has you first believing it's a flashback to medieval Ireland: The Irish, led by Amsterdam's solemn father (Liam Neeson), Priest Vallon, sharpen their knives, kneel before a cross, and ritualistically proceed through a cavernous warehouse to the street—an American, 19th-century street, on which they meet Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher and his blue-kerchiefed army of "Nativists." The carnage that follows is a little too self-consciously stylized for my taste—it features a slew of mythically low-angle close-ups of combatants, along with half-second images of split skulls and blood geysers. But Scorsese establishes that the violence will be ferocious and horrific, not exhilarating. And as the butcher carves up Priset Vallon in front of his young son's eyes, he shows the primal, caveman rage of these men, who regard the stakes as monumental.

The first two-thirds of the movie is shaped as a classical revenge tale, with Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returning  from the "House of Refuge" reformatory after 16 years. Concealing his identity from everyone but his friend Johnny (Henry Thomas), Amsterdam insinuates himself into Bill the Butcher's gang, which includes some of his father's old cohorts. And then, in spite of himself, Amsterdam begins to be drawn to the charismatic older man, who celebrates the killing of Priest Vallon not with mockery but genuine reverence, as the overthrow of an honorable warrior king. The dynamic is more interesting than that of the usual revenge saga: It even carries a whiff of Goodfellas (1990) in the way that Amsterdam starts to enjoy the power of being in Bill's inner circle—to the point of protecting Bill from other would-be assassins.

The older man becomes Amsterdam's teacher in the art of killing, and he doesn't seem to mind when the youth takes up with a woman he once slept with and nurtured, the beauteous pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz). In the film's most oddly touching scene, Amsterdam, having just made love to Jenny, wakes to find Bill sitting in a rocking chair beside the bed, eager to talk about the day he cut his own eye out when it looked away from an enemy, the dead priest Vallon, and the crumbling of civilization. "God bless you," Bill concludes.

Liam Neeson, before the fall
Liam Neeson, before the fall

In the past, Scorsese's most evocative work was shot on actual streets, but the New York of Gangs of New York was created from scratch in Rome at the Cinecittà Studios. The director, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and production designer Dante Ferretti have gone for a dark palette with low, smoky skies and colors unintensified by sunlight. Working closely with Luc Sante, who documented the era in his irresistible history Low Life, they've created a jumbled, claustrophobic maze of listing wooden shacks and walkways, of cobblestone streets winding in and out of muddy paths. There's a lavish, music-hall staging of Uncle Tom's Cabin and a Chinese opera; and when Amsterdam prevails upon his father's old ally Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) to run against Bill the Butcher's candidate for sheriff, Scorsese packs a whole political campaign into a couple of tumultuous minutes.

It's a circus of a city, teeming with extras looking impressively busy. You can sense that Scorsese lost himself in this ecosystem—and that he lost control of the drama along the way. Cameron Diaz begins delectably as a hellion, a pickpocket, a "bludget" (alley robber), a "turtle dove" (housemaid impostor), and "a prim-lookin' stargazer" (prostitute). But suddenly she's a boringly conventional ingénue, torn between her new love and her former surrogate daddy. And the screenwriters forgot to give DiCaprio a way to hold his own against Day-Lewis: He shows little of the spring-heeled impudence he had in Titanic (1997) and has in the coming Catch Me If You Can. Leo is left to watch dourly from behind a grubby little chin-beard while his co-star chews the scenery.

The DiCaprio-Diaz nonevent wouldn't matter as much if the movie hadn't been edited to emphasize the love triangle in lieu of other, more epic matters. Gangs of New York doesn't climax merely with the face-off between Amsterdam and Bill the Butcher: It builds to the New York Draft Riots of 1863, when a mob of mostly Irish immigrants (some of them fresh off the boat) took to the streets to protest being shipped off to die on the front lines of the Civil War. (Sons of the elite could buy out of the draft for the then-princely sum of $300.) Suddenly Amsterdam's tribe—until now the good guys—are shown lynching many newly emancipated African-Americans and getting blown away by federal troops; and the death-struggle between Amsterdam and Bill becomes absurdly beside the point.

That's a profound—and surprising—change of direction for the movie. It signals the end of medieval tribalism and the coming of a new, nationalized power. But as the film has been trimmed (at the behest of New York's own Bill the Butcher, Harvey Weinstein), the change hasn't been prepared for. The scenes of conscription are brief and schematic and have no dramatic power; and it's never clear how Amsterdam—who has black friends and who has taken no position on the draft—feels about his people suddenly taking on the government. When the federal troops arrive and the cannon balls start flying, it's out of nowhere. It's as if, in Gladiator (2000), Maximus (Russell Crowe) and Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) began to square off in the Colosseum and suddenly the place was overrun by Visigoths.

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