Dir. Martin Scorsese
Release Date: 2002
Running Time: 167 Minutes
Based On:The Gangs of New York: Herbert Astbury
Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent
Is it true there is no such thing as a bad movie with Daniel Day-Lewis? On this evidence, certainly.
A character played by DDL based very loosely on a bare-knuckle boxer and political agitator called William Poole from New York. William "Bill The Butcher" Cutting is a "jus soli" native American protestant gang-leader that is quite simply the most enigmatic movie character that there has ever been.
Holding fire on the whole thing, it is important to qualify that it comes from some jaw-dropping camerawork, atmospheric-scenery, and glorious dialogue. It is a movie that if you watched it on a black and white television from the back of a bus, you could still feel like you were in 3D Imax. Thanks in majority to the editing work of Scorsese regular Thelma Schoonmaker, her cutting and mixing are triumphant. Take for example the opening battle between the one-eyed Butcher and his gang of Natives and the Irish clans fronted by Liam Neeson. There are as many splices from the cutting room as there are from the weapons, but this is no Michael Bay flash n' grab, no, this is delectable, a poetic miasma of gory-fortitude that makes love to its music. Truly it is the osmosis of sensory perfection.
Liam Neeson is the Catholic rival, Priest Valon. The head of the gang known as "The Dead Rabbits", introduced while in a pre-fight ritual with his son praying to St Michael, in a cinematography masterclass led by Michael Ballhaus, we are walking through the hellish and incredible journey up from the catacombs of the local mission church and out through the vestry. Introducing future characters. and especially the aforementioned Mr. Gleeson as the mercenary bludgeon wielding Monk, a man who can kick open a door from five feet away. In an eerily empty white-blanketed wasteland, we slowly meet Daniel Day-Lewis, he calls his protestant warriors to battle and Liam Neeson's Priest rallies his papist troops including well-known gangs on both sides of the Christian faith from the history books such as the Plug Uglies and the Bowery Boys. with rousing rhetoric, you are given the bloodthirsty snow-crisp opening battle. It leaves you giddy from the involvement such elegant artisanship affords you as an audience. Soon after this, the Priests son Amsterdam Vallon decides to escape the scene. He is unfortunately captured and sent to the infamous Hellgate on Blackwells Island (Roosevelt Island today.)
He is reintroduced as a young man with William Cutting in his sights and New York City is his aim. He lands ashore in New York, heading to the familiarly blusterous Five Points area of the city. This is a gang and crime-infested pestilence zone where Cholera is rife and so are robbery and protection-scams. He is immediately at the business of avenging his father.
Leonardo DiCaprio glows as the grown Amsterdam. He reignites a childhood acquaintance and proves his mettle, quickly rising in a low-level gang (the gang he was born into is now outlawed by Bill the Butcher after he finally defeated them years prior.) so he is shown the ropes by old-pal Johnny. Whilst paying tribute to Bill, as all do in the "Points," Bill shows an interest in Vallon. After completing a job for the butcher, an old ally Amsterdam's father, who has turned to the natives, bullies them, something he always has done unabated with the feeble Johnny. This time the more formidable Amsterdam challenges him to a scrap. His impressive victory of this most unlikeable character, McGloin played magnificently contemptibly by Gary Lewis, intrigues Bill, and a quick friendship develops between the two. All the while Vallon still plots the Butchers' undoing
Then we have Jenny Everdene, the love interest and a girl with ties to those already in young Amsterdam's world. She is clucked into a caricature by Cameron Diaz. Against the might of the greatest actor alive and a young Leo, a very worthy follower in DDL's footsteps, we have 'Mary', or one of the Angels, Charlies that is. She is dreadful. Her hammy accent that sounds more like a kid imitating a pistol than an Irish-American brogue, goes from bitchy and awful to awful and sultry and is eventually awfully meek. Yet strangely, she drops it all for a scene in a stage routine with Bill, she comes to fruition, acting as though she belonged, proving she can do it, but it was a spurt that came from a big dribble. You have Bill Cutting and his ear-clinching and terrifyingly enjoyable insults and rhetoric, then you have her saying some stupid threat and sounding like the mother from the BBC sitcom 'Bread'. He is Peter Sellers, Leo is Chris Morris, Diaz is a Friends boxed-set. Each has thier place, two up, one down. Get us Jodie Foster, Julianne Moore, Charlize Theron, or Angelina Jolie. Instead, they may as well have cast Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl, Francis had his daughter, Sofia in Godfather III and so Marty had Miss Diaz here. At least Coppola could blame nepotism.
Check out another great review of one of Scorsese's movies.
Political corruption is giving stage with the superbly bent Tammany Hall rotter William "Boss" Tweed played by the sublime Jim Broadbent, comically and competently aided by Eddie Marsan as his perpetually-terrified assistant. I start to wonder if America has a shortage of actors given the number of British players here.
Vallon falls for Miss Everdene, breaking the heart of his besotted pal, Johnny, and further endearing him to Bill, who has a fatherly, if unorthodoxly so, relationship with her. It is after a night at the theatre to watch Uncle Toms Cabin, he takes young Vallon to his heart, showing a less-than-subtle father-son fondness for him. For all to see, it is clear the Butcher is grooming Vallon for his place. What follows in the following morning, while Amsterdam lies with Miss Everdene, possibly the best screen soliloquy ever delivered, where Day-Lewis explains his exhaustion at his life and the role he carries and how the "spectacle of fearsome acts" holds no lust for or from him anymore. It is simply an acting masterclass and I am in total awe and will always be. Daniel Day-Lewis is a true artist. No selling out, no branding, he never embarrasses you. His integrity and benevolence are beyond question. Truly one of God's gifts to the world. You tell me anyone else who can say "whoopsy-daisy" and still sound like a total badass?
It has to be said although Bill is murderous, cruel, terrifying and cold, he is likable, and this does not aide the sympathy for Vallon in his desires for revenge. He speaks of Vallon's father with a fondness and respect he shows to no-one else, living or dead, especially no-one else Irish, he is no fan of the Emerald isle. He gives Vallon wealth, power, and love. Also, the battles with his father were voluntary, so as a bais for vengenace, I find his motives a little brattish.
Amsterdam carries out his plan, however, the aftermath is not how he expects it to be. He has to reconcile with his new position, making the best of it and fighting those who he would need to, all the time the boiling tensions that will ultimately lead to the draft riots that once tore New York apart.
As each person makes the choices they must, various historical and organic influences turn events how none saw coming and it culminates in a graphically spectacular closing.
The film deals with a very heady mix made up of mid-life crises, loss of family/faith, and blurring of racial divides. What happens when a hated ethnic population becomes greater in numbers than the native races, as the original native Americans found out, so will the birthright pilgrim children when the Irish do to them what they did to indigenous Indian tribes.
The class divide in Yankee America during Lincoln's second term and the might of the Union army with Lincoln's controversial suspension of habeas corpus and conscription. This turned New York, as the most densely populated area, into a tinder box. The riots that were a genuine event, were catastrophic and bloody. It must be said they were not as bad as is made out in the film, but kudos anyway to Thelma and Marty again. That master of the screen does in a few minutes what most directors take a film to do. To my mind, you can tell a great director by how many separate movies you could make out of the subjects of a film. Here, as you could in many Scorsese pics but especially here, you could make plenty, such as one just featuring the riots. The soldiers wading through blood puddles, the news-wire reporting burnings, murders, and home-invasions.
The close-up camera work, showing the claustrophobic and tense city from a perspective sense was not missed, music, as well as the chopping sounds of knife-on-block, the calls of the street-sellers, the string-accompaniment for the Fifth Avenue setting, and the slow-motion to full sound all group together for an aural festivities, feast you will enjoy in memory as well as at the time.
This film has some strong pivotal highlights, the aforementioned stage-show in PT Barnum's show, the zooming close-ups between the three main players creates an orgy of anticipation, and does a masterful job of making you think it will be okay....then......" that's a wound"
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There are many moments, such as the first meeting of the Butcher and the newly elected Sheriff, Monk, shows you won't know where this movie holds the point to go get a cup of tea. Blink and you miss it. Also, the battles, all of them, are a thing of excellence, the full cinematic experience. Sound, camerawork, music, mystery, violence, blood, humour, love, sadness, hatred, reconcile, and pure bloody satisfaction. Many people did not like this movie, I can normally understand different opinions, not here I can't. If you still have not seen it and you get the chance, don't even think about missing it.
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