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GANGS OF NEW YORK

2002, dir. Martin Scorcese
166 min. Rated R.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent.

Review by Noel Wood

You know, there's been a lot of anticipation for Scorcese's big historical drama here. This thing got delayed, put off, delayed again, and I was starting to think it was never gonna come out. Of course, it's finally here. So when finally getting a chance to see this film, I wanted the best possible theater conditions. Unfortunately, the same people who seem to be in every other movie theater I've attended in the last six months seemed to follow me to this one as well.

    

Okay, here's the deal: We all run late sometimes. I know it. Sometimes, it's just not within our control. I mean, I showed up for the 1:40 show around 1:35, and there was an unforseen line at the box office, so I walked in while that fucking "ambitious short film" where the ticket-taker blocks the ketchup from hitting the pretty girl's sweater was being shown. If you've been to a movie in the last three months, you know what I mean. But you see, when I'm running late, I don't dilly dally. I get the fuck in the theater ASAP and take my seat. So it pisses me off to no end when these fucking people decide they can get there late, wait in line for popcorn, and then shuffle in during the opening credits, still having their unfinished conversations from outside. You know what? That's against the rules, people. The opening credits are part of the movie. So you shut the fuck up during them. Oh yeah, and turn off your cell phone, you all-important fuckbrain. They remind you during the little theater snippet at the beginning of the movie, but it seems to be the people who were in the theater when that bit was shown who need to get an incoming call before they realize how goddamn annoying it is to be watching Daniel Day-Lewis tensely standing over Leonardo DiCaprio and then hear that fucking Nokia ring. You see that "Vibrate" setting? Use it, or, god forbid, TURN THE GODDAMN THING OFF. It's not like it can't wait three hours. You're not that important, hotshot.

And, seemingly, even though I walk in to the theater a minute or two late myself and pick out the most isolated spot in the theater, everyone who comes in after me seems to just gravitate directly toward me, chewing their popcorn with their mouth wide open and rattling their cellophane like they're trying to wake the fucking dead. Oh yeah, and here's another tip: We're all watching the same movie you are, so you don't need to tell us what's happening on the screen. You don't need to read the words that appear on documents and the like. If we were visually impaired, we'd be listening to the authorized book-on-tape adaptation, fuckball.

    

Notwithstanding the theater annoyances, GANGS OF NEW YORK is a very good film. It's not a perfect film, but it's very good. I was a bit wary of going in to it, because a few people whose opinions I respect gave me some not-so-positive reviews, but I didn't really pick up on the flaws that they noted. But before I get into what I liked about the movie, I'll get into what didn't work so much: Leo.

Yup. You see, I had the privelege of having my last two theatrical moviegoing experiences being two-and-a-half hour Leo films. If you had told me I would be saying that two years ago, I'da had you shot. But so it is. And what's alarming is the absolute contrast in the performances. I mean, how could Leo be so goddamned good in CATCH ME IF YOU CAN, and so freakin' terrible in this movie? Okay, I guess in retrospect, it wasn't that terrible. I mean, his fading-in-and-out Irish accent was at least more tolerable than Tom Cruise's in FAR AND AWAY, and at least didn't trail off completely like Costner's English accent in ROBIN HOOD. But it's still not good. And seriously, while Leo had some moments of goodness in this movie, usually it was like he was half-assing it. And Cameron Diaz didn't do much to help, because I couldn't tell if she was supposed to be from Ireland or Georgia half the time. At least there were other performances that made up for it.

    

Like Daniel Day-Lewis. Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm jumping on the "Let's praise Daniel Day-Lewis" bandwagon that every other wannabe movie critic has already laid stake on, but they're all right. He absolutely rocks this movie. Not only in his speech and actions, but in his pure coldhearted one-eyed stares and body language. His character, Bill the Butcher, is quite possibly the coolest villain that ever graced a historical drama. On top of that, he's one of the coolest villains in modern cinema period. And Day-Lewis is bound to bring home some statues for bringing him to life. If not, then there is something seriously fucked up in the world. Well, thank God Russell Crowe didn't really work this year, so we don't have to worry about one of his movies hogging the awards ceremonies.

Of course, there's a lot more to a movie than great performances, and we all know Martin Scorcese is like old Faithful when it comes to great direction. And man, do those chops show through and through in the first ten minutes of the film. No slow buildup, no silly character introductions. This is strictly business. We start off in some underground catacombs, buried inconspicuously under some tenenments in the community of Five Points in 1840's New York. There's hordes of men, marching into what we assume is a battle. And it's not only men. There's women there that look tougher than some prize fighters in the bunch. Of course, at the head is "Priest" Vallon, played by Liam Neeson. He holds his young son's hand as he marches toward his destination. As they near the gate to the outside world, there's one final addition: a burly man by the name of Monk, who is in it, so long as the price is right. Once the agreement is made, we step out onto a snowy New York morning, with a village square so empty you'd think we just survived Nuclear Winter. That is, of course, until the natives arrive -- Hundreds of them -- all under the command of Bill "The Butcher" Cutter. At their commands, the two armies collide. No guns. Just clubs, knives, fists, and the occasional piece of kitchen cutlery. It's downright brutal.

    

And that's your setup. Brief title sequences, no opening credits, lunging right into the core of the battle. Fast forward sixteen years, and we see the son of the Priest, slain in the battle, as he graduates to manhood. He's fresh out of an orphanage, and has only one thing on his mind: Avenge the death of his father. Sure, it's a simple setup, but the story more than makes up for the lack of convoluted buildup.

So the younger Vallon, now played by Leo, is out on his own, and goes by the name Amsterdam. The country is involved in Civil War, and there are dissenting factions not only between the North and South, but even within the Union itself. Amsterdam realizes that the idea of Gangs has taken on a whole new meaning under this new political climate. Eventually he winds up under the wing of the man he most despises, the man who killed his father: Bill the Butcher. He's also spotting the same men that fought alongside his own father years before. However, many of them are under the thumb of Bill as well, some quite close to him in fact.

    

The relationship between Bill and Amsterdam is a very interesting one. At one moment we see the resentment swelling up within Amsterdam, the next moment we see him going out of his way in order to protect his ironic father figure. Bill teaches the kid how to fight, how to kill, and rewards him for what might eventually lead to his own downfall. Along the way, Amsterdam meets the lovely Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), and we get the not-quite-a-love-story subplot. Homestly, this is one of the things that kind of irked me. The movie was a pretty jam-packed 165 minutes long, and while it didn't really have a lot of room for a love story of note, it left you longing for more development within the one it tried to put forth. I don't know if I would have preferred less or more, but what they give you just seems to be kind of wasted space in the end.

Like I said, the film clocks in at 165 minutes, but unlike the last Dicaprio film I saw, it flies by. While CATCH ME could have been told in 100 minutes, this could have been told in 200. The fact that I this movie clocks in at 25 minutes shorter than that one but felt like it was an hour shorter says a lot. By the time of the final battle, I was really wanting more movie. I was interested in these characters. I wanted to know more about Boss Tweed, and Monk, P.T. Barnum, and Happy Jack. That's again part of the Scorcese charm -- his ability to make the supporting characters interesting enough to propel his films at all corners.

    

The only really underwhelming part of the movie storyline wise was the finale. Spoilers ahead, so tread with caution: The final battle between the Natives and the Irish never really comes into fruition, due to a much larger "gang battle": The Civil War, and the draft riots of the 1860's. I mean, we're shooting for historical accuracy as best as possible here, but it has to be kind of a letdown to build up to a point for 2 and a half hours and then throw us a total curveball. Oh well, the payoff wasn't quite what I expected, but it still works. Oh, and I'm not quite sure about the fades of the different eras of New York at the end. I don't know how much of it was post-9/11 heroism, but it seemed to feel a bit out of place.

The set is fucking amazing. Scorcese went to Italy and actually built an entire mockup of 1860's New York. IT looks accurate as all get out, and it just shows what kind of labor Marty is willing to put into his films (for contrast, reportedly George Lucas visited the set and said that the whole thing could have been done with CGI, which I woulda taken as a slap in the face. Maybe he coulda gotten the Goodfellas to take Lucas out back and whack him). You may also know that this project has been on the shelf for over 20 years, so finally gettin it, and getting it this good, is quite a treat.

The movie did have a few flaws, but overall it was well worth the wait. And it's definitely a repeat-viewer. I may have to take this one in again before it's out of theaters. That shouldn't be too hard, because after we Georgians finally get ADAPTATION and NARC and CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND there ain't much else worth seeing. I mean, come on, do I really have to weigh my decision really closely when the options are another viewing of GANGS OF NEW YORK or a fresh shot at JUST MARRIED? Yeah, I didn't think so.

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