Daniel Day Lewis outshines his fellow cast in Scorsese’s sprawling historical epic.
Martin Scorsese and New York go together like peaches and cream, Lennon and McCartney and gin and tonic. From 1973’s Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street, released last year, Scorsese has been telling stories of the Big Apple and its inhabitants for 40 years. Martin Scorsese lives and breathes New York. 2002’s Gangs of New York is his attempt to tell us the story of his city’s troubled adolescence. Set in 1860s Manhattan, Gangs of New York is a sprawling, partially-fictionalized epic depicting war, power and corruption in the Five Points.
GONY tells us the story of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), the leader of a clan of Irish immigrants. The movie’s memorable antagonist, Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, is played with bravado by a rabid, moustachioed Daniel Day Lewis. We’re all well aware of what a master DDL is, so I’ll keep this brief; Daniel Day Lewis was electrifying in this role. Bill The Butcher is a complex, charismatic-and most importantly, truly scary- villain.
And he’s probably the saving grace of this movie.
I’ve seen Gangs of New York multiple times, and each time I’m still a little disappointed by it. Its cartoonish fictionalized history just doesn’t work for me. And this is most evident during its opening scene- the fight between Vallon’s clan of Dead Rabbits and Bill’s “American Natives”. Sure, it’s a thrilling, visceral battle, but yet it needs bringing down to earth. I know many are a fan of Scorcese’s choice of style in this movie, but it makes it hard for me to take any of it all that seriously.
Furthermore, DiCaprio is horribly miscast as Amsterdam Vallon. His Irish accent is a little patchy, and he’s just not up to his usual high standard. Next to DDL, who utterly becomes Bill The Butcher, he falls a little flat. Speaking of casting- and I think we all know what I’m about to say- there’s the small matter of one Cameron Diaz. Questionable accent aside, she’s just not fiery enough. Her character is a pickpocket and a prostitute, yet Diaz is a touch too nice. She has about as much bite as a toothless puppy.
However, the film’s merit lies in its storytelling beyond Vallon’s rivalry with Bill. Its forays into war and politics are where Gangs of New York is most exciting. There is one memorable long shot of Irish immigrants stepping off the ships, being handed a rifle and sent back out to fight. The context here is more intriguing than its central character. Gangs of New York is not Scorsese’s most elegant work, yet it tells us a lot about the troubled evolution the great city to which he is inextricably tied.