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19th Jan 2003

Film Review: Gangs of New York

How about a movie review then. Saw Scorsese’s latest, Gangs of New York, last night. Not overly impressed, I have to say.

It’s a revenge story (not another one! Movie-makers really do seem to think blood revenge is the only thing capable of motivating anybody) set against the backdrop of gang warfare in a New York ghetto in the mid 19th century.

The main problem I have with it is that absolutely everybody’s in the gangs. There’s nobody who wouldn’t maim you with an edged tool as soon as look as you. There’s nobody to hate being under the thumb of evil gang boss Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) except members of other gangs who resent not being in charge themselves. In other words, we’ve got the king, his barons and footsoldiers, but no actual people. So there’s no sense of outrage, not even any perfunctory objection, when soldiers open fire on rioters and leave the streets awash with blood. Just about everybody in this film deserves that and worse.

The film opens with a frankly unbelievable battle between rival gangs in which an army of Irish immigrants led by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), his small son in tow, face off against a similar army of native New Yorkers, led by Bill the Butcher, both sides armed with axes, swords, butcher’s knives, and so on. The natives all wear huge top hats, and the Irish look like something out of Braveheart, including a woman in goth get-up with claws on her gloves who leaps snarling into battle and emerges with a severed ear in her hand. It all looks completely ludicrous.

Priest is killed, instructing his son not to look away as the Butcher finishes him. The boy grows up to be Leonardo diCaprio, and the film takes on whole new levels of unbelievability. Calling himself Amsterdam, he works his way into Bill’s gang and becomes the Butcher’s right-hand man so he can avenge his father in suitable style.

Along the way he does the “they hate each other, whoops they’re shagging” thing with pickpocket Cameron Diaz, who his best mate fancies. Naturally said mate proceeds to sell him out to Bill, and the revenge attempt is foiled, meaning the whole thing has to be settled with another pitched battle like the one at the beginning.

The difference being, this time the forces of law and order suddenly exist, and are busy putting down the (historical) riots against the Civil War draft. As battleships shell the city and people are blown to bits around them, Amsterdam and Bill are still intent on finishing their personal animosity. You just want a shell to hit both of them.

Of course it doesn’t. Little Leo wins, because he’s little Leo, and he’s got a pretty girlfriend, and his gang’s got a token black dude in it, and of course they’re Irish so they must be nicer than Bill’s lot. Personally, I can’t see any difference between the evil authorities press-ganging Irish immigrants into the Union army straight off the boat and Amsterdam building an army of the same people to die for his personal vengeance quest, but there you go.

There are some good performances. Daniel Day Lewis is as superb as ever as the Butcher. He has an uncanny knack for playing a part so completely you completely forget it’s him, and he even manages to wring a believable character out of a pantomime-villain turn. Brendan Gleason also impresses as the one half-way decent character in the entire film, and the only one whose death you’re repelled by.

In films like Braveheart and Gladiator the setting is distant enough and alien enough for the cavalier approach to historical authenticity and the clichéd character motivation not to jar. Gangs of New York is set too recently for that though. The Civil War era is not a Dark Age where a writer or film-maker can get away with anything. As a result it just looks like Mad Max. Only less entertaining.

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