Monday, October 31, 2011

Gangs of New York

I'll be honest, I usually find historical epics to be pretty boring. Even the good ones could use some trimming. Leave it to Martin Scorsese though to create one that's gripping from the first second of its nearly three hour running time to the last. It tells the story of New York City before it became the mecca of human civilization it is today, when the streets still ran red with the blood of the many warring factions that vied for influence and their many victims. The film isn't a true story, but besides some embellishments it may as well have been. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio in his first of four collaborations with Scorsese as the son of an Irish immigrant and leader of the Dead Rabbits, and Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher, the man who killed him. It starts with a war between two gangs for control of Five Points, a district in the city where the poor make do. The extremely bloody battle sets the tone for the rest of the film, establishing its main characters and their later motivations, as the plot quickly jumps forward to when DiCaprio's character has grown up.

The two best things about the movie are easily Scorsese's direction combined with the amazing work done to recreate 1800s New York and capture it on film, and Day-Lewis' performance. You could pretty much cut the protagonist out of the film and it could just be a great story about a leader of both crime and community in a city as it slowly develops into something resembling modern society. That's not really to slight DiCaprio, that's just how good Day-Lewis is. There's just something cool about the place the film creates, filled with hard men with curly mustaches, top hats, and razors and knives tucked into their clothing. And he epitomizes it with his glass eye and inscrutable nature. You never know if he's going to cut your throat or give you a pat on the shoulder. DiCaprio has his romantic foil, played by Cameron Diaz, can't quite measure up to his work, though they're perfectly fine otherwise.

The supporting cast is fantastic too, featuring recognizable faces in a variety of roles, supporting various sides as they see fit. Liam Neeson brings plenty of gravitas to the couple scenes in the beginning where he plays DiCaprio's father, which lends weight to later scenes where Bill shows clear ongoing respect for his former foe. The small time crew DiCaprio runs with features Al Capone from Boardwalk Empire and D'Angelo from The Wire, and Brendan Gleeson and John C. Reilly give interesting performances as former allies of Neeson who may no longer agree with his ideas. The film isn't without problems, of course. The entire third act is pretty messy, as though the screenwriters lost momentum and had to basically force things to make sure they managed to check off all the plot details they needed to to reach their conclusion. And that conclusion, while thematically appropriate, does result in a rather unfortunate anticlimax of an ending. With Scorsese at the helm though, all of those individual scenes manage to be good if not great, and he makes the problematic ending work because it's very clear what they're going for. He just knows how to make great movies, and this is certainly one of them.

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