Film Reviews


By • Dec 20th, 2002 •

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Miramax Films
Running time — 168 minutes / MPAA rating: R

What drew director Martin Scorsese to obsess about this project for 20 years? Sometimes, obsessions should be safely left for mulling over during long car rides.

Luckily, Scorsese was able to seduce Daniel Day-Lewis to return to films in an extravagantly realized, brilliant performance as Bill “The Butcher” Poole. His hair, nose, moustache, arthritic walk, clothes, gravelly fluid voice and anorexic demeanor all pay tribute to his character. Every penny of the huge budget is on the screen in dazzling sets, but its scope detracts from one of Scorsese’s strengths – exposing his characters subconscious motivations. A movie must be more than set design and background extras. Without the benefit of a screenplay that mines his character’s past as an orphaned youth, Leonardo DiCaprio struggles to hold his own next to Day-Lewis. He’s just no match. The story drags on and the drama only comes to life when Poole is on screen. Day-Lewis is riveting. Embracing a villain’s best traits, Poole is violently unpredictable and charming.

The story, while historically compelling, is weak here and can’t sustain the bloated running time. Scorsese, who has stamped his mark on so many films, appears overwhelmed by the scenery. Remarkably, his vision is unfocused. He’s lost in the crowd.

The film opens in 1863 amid the backdrop of immigrants pouring into New York City. The “native” Americans of English ancestry resent the Irish immigrants who flood into the city at a rate of 15,000 a week. New York is a cesspool of crime, corruption, and lawlessness. The Civil War is about to break out. Grime, depravity, and menace are the currency people respect. The notorious filth and stench of early New York City is glamorized by GANGS’ elaborate sets. Immigrant leader Father Vallon (Liam Neeson) dies in a bloody turf war with Bill “The Butcher” Poole (Daniel Day-Lewis) over territory known as the Five Points. Vallon’s young son witnesses his father’s death at Poole’s hand. Twenty years later Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns seeking revenge. Poole takes a sudden liking to Amsterdam and allows him to become his protégé. Amsterdam quickly becomes interested in pickpocket artist Jenny Everdeane (miscast Cameron Diaz). While every sweeping epic needs a romance, here it lessens the hero’s resolve.

There are some uncommon touches that seem pressed upon Scorsese by show business overlords. An early music score is so hip-hop modern it’s glaringly ridiculous. And topless women abound – something Scorsese hasn’t indulged in previously. Perhaps it was appropriate to Poole’s debauchery, but appears condescending rather than a nod to historical accuracy.

While the story of the rise of Irish gangsters and the political machine that created unparalleled corruption in this country may have made interesting reading, the fact that it took three writers, Jay Cocks (THE AGE OF INNOCENCE), Steven Zaillian (HANNIBAL), and Kenneth Lonergan (YOU CAN COUNT ON ME) to craft the screenplay indicates that problems brewed early on (and were acknowledged). Scorsese works best when there is a definitive point of view present. Three screenwriters muddled the story’s spine and the weakened the film’s impact.

In light of current world events, GANGS could have been a metaphor for expressing how lawlessness and corruption have shaped the beginnings of a society. Or how different groups of people clash and then do manage to live peacefully together. GANGS stays reasonably close to historical fact in such details as the king’s ransom of $300 to avoid going to war (The History Channel’s documentary on The Five Points gangs theorized this would be equivalent to $40,000 today). But the story of the immigrants, the conflict of the classes, and political corruption could have used one dominant voice.

Amsterdam Vallon: Leonardo DiCaprio
Bill the Butcher: Daniel Day-Lewis
Jenny Everdeane: Cameron Diaz
Boss Tweed: Jim Broadbent
Happy Jack: John C. Reilly
Johnny Sirocco: Henry Thomas
Monk: Brendan Gleeson
Priest Vallon: Liam Neeson

Director: Martin Scorsese
Screenwriters: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan
Story by: Jay Cocks
Producers: Alberto Grimaldi, Harvey Weinstein
Executive producers: Michael Ovitz, Bob Weinstein, Rick Yorn,
Michael Hausman, Maurizio Grimaldi
Director of photography: Michael Ballhaus
Production designer: Dante Ferretti
Music: Howard Shore
Costume designer: Sandy Powell
Editor: Thelma Schoonmaker

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