Gangs of New York (2002) Movie Review

According to the stories, director Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”) has been trying to get his new movie “Gangs of New York” made for the last 20 years or so. One wonders why it took him so long, because the movie, about Irish Immigrants struggling to survive hardship in 1863 New York City, isn’t exactly controversial, or required technology to catch up to it. Whatever the case, it’s a good thing he finally got it made, because “Gangs of New York” is quite a good film.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam, an Irish lad who saw his father killed in a gang brawl 16 years earlier. Now an adult and able to exact revenge, Amsterdam returns to the New York City neighborhood, the Five Points, where his father was struck down by Bill (Daniel Day-Lewis), nicknamed “Bill the Butcher.” With the Five Points now under his command, Bill, a self-proclaimed “Native American”, runs everything and everyone, and those he can’t run, he slaughters.

But there’s a slight problem for Amsterdam. After insinuating himself into Bill’s gang, Amsterdam forgets what he’s there to do, and begins to like having the violent Bill as a mentor and father figure. Bill, by the same token, has taken more than a liking to Amsterdam, and begins to consider the young man the son he never had. Cameron Diaz shows up as Jenny, a thief who becomes involve with Amsterdam, but has a past with Bill. Before all is said and done, a final, bloody showdown between Amsterdam and Bill is brewing, and Irish immigrants being forced to enlist in the Union Army to fight the Civil War are starting to realize the cards are stacked against them…

There are actually two running stories in “Gangs of New York” — Amsterdam’s quest to avenge his father, and the plight of the Irish as they find out that America’s “freedom and opportunity” has a price. I will admit to being ignorant of the New York drat riots of 1863, when Irish immigrants revolted against the establishment and went on a looting rampage that resulted in more than 1,000 dead. Although the screenplay elects to keep Amsterdam’s quest for revenge in the forefront and the Irish/draft issue in the background, when the keg finally blows it’s comes as no surprise. Foreshadowing at work, as it were.

Rumor has it Daniel Day-Lewis was brought out of self-imposed retirement just for this role. And thank God he did, because Lewis is flawless as Bill the Butcher, a murderous hoodlum with a twisted sense of patriotism and honor. Lewis is so good that for much of the film I forgot I was supposed to hate him and disagree with his ideas. The guy convinced me with his conviction and passion! It’s also a good thing Scorsese chose DiCaprio, probably the finest young actor working in Hollywood today, to play opposite Lewis, because anyone else would have gotten grounded up and spat back out as dog food.

While DiCaprio holds his own against Lewis’ tour de force performance, co-star Cameron Diaz is hopelessly out of her element. Diaz’s Jenny is supposed to be Irish, but her accent comes and goes at random intervals; actually, Diaz is most awkward when her Irish accent returns, reminding us that she’s “doing” an accent. Of course, in fairness to Diaz, who is still a relative newcomer to acting, having to work opposite DiCaprio and Lewis is a mammoth task for any actor. Only Paul Newman’s sober turn as a gangster in “Road to Perdition” has as much invested skill as Lewis’ portrayal of Butcher Bill.

Those going into “Gangs of New York” shouldn’t forget that this movie is about gangs and revenge. The film is covered in blood and the violence is done in a matter-of-fact way. There are a couple of violent scenes shot in stylized fashion, but for the most part Scorsese puts the stabbing, shooting, and hammering (I kid you not) in our face. This movie is brutal from end to end.

If there is one slight problem, it’s that the film may be slightly too long at over 2 hours plus, and perhaps the middle section could have been trimmed for pace. The Third Act, as Amsterdam prepares to confront Bill in a final gang battle, also seems to go on for way too long, and by the time the final showdown arrives, I started to forget why they were meeting to kill each other in the first place.

“Gangs of New York” also has too much going on in the background. Just for pacing and focus, the film might have done better if it had stayed with Amsterdam’s search for vengeance and leave it at that. The whole subplot about the draft riot is interesting, but in the final analysis it comes across as more of a diversion than a necessary inclusion. Also, having the riot intrude on Amsterdam and Bill’s climactic showdown was anti-climactic. As I like to point out, sometimes less is more.

Martin Scorsese (director) / Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan (screenplay)
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio …. Amsterdam Vallon
Daniel Day-Lewis …. William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting
Cameron Diaz …. Jenny Everdeane
Jim Broadbent …. William ‘Boss’ Tweed
John C. Reilly …. Happy Jack
Henry Thomas …. Johnny Sirocco

Buy Gangs of New York on DVD