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Gangs of New York Review

By Shawn McKenzie 12/24/2002

This has been a banner year for Leonardo DiCaprio.  Not only has he made one good movie this year, but two!  (See my review of his other movie, Catch Me if You Can.)  He was fortunate to get to work with two legendary directors, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese.  While I liked his performance in Catch Me if You Can better, he is excellent in Scorseseís Gangs of New York.

 

A young Irish-American man named Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio) comes back to New York City one day in 1863 after being released from a "house of refuge."  He is an orphan, because sixteen years earlier, as a young boy, Amsterdam watched a immense street battle in the Five Points district between the Dead Rabbits gang, led by his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), and the Nativists gang, which was led by William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis.)  During the battle, Cutting killed his father.  Now that he is back in town, Amsterdam wants revenge against Cutting and fortunately runs into Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), a street thief who works for Bill that he knew as a kid.  Johnny agrees not to tell Cutting Amsterdamís true identity and soon Amsterdam himself ends up working for Cutting as well, eventually becoming his right-hand man.  While the Dead Rabbits have been outlawed by Cutting, who unofficially runs the area along with crooked politician William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent), he stills honors Amsterdam's father as the last decent man he fought.  Men who were once in the Priestís gang, such as Happy Jack (John C. Reilly) and Charles McGloin (Gary Lewis), now work for Bill and share his contempt for the multitude of immigrants who pull in daily at the docks.  Most are signed up directly into the Union Army to be sent to the South, and soon native men will be drafted into the army if they can't come up with the $300 deferment fee.  As he is plotting his revenge against the man who killed his father, Amsterdam begins falling for Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a talented pickpocket who also has a sketchy past with Cutting.  As time goes on and with the help of former Dead Rabbit Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), Amsterdam finally makes his move on retaliating against Cutting.  From that point on, the city heads towards violence on a range of fronts.

 

I had asked my fellow Denver critic Reggie McDaniel what he thought of the movie before I got a chance to see it.  Reggie thought Leo was miscast as Amsterdam.  He thought Leo wasnít believable as a tough guy.  He also thought that most people should forgive the bad Irish accents in the movie and just concentrate on the performances.  I have to disagree with him on all of this.  First, I thought Leo made a great tough guy.  Sure, he was young and inexperienced-looking, but I think that was what the character called for.  He certainly wasnít a wussy-boy by any means.  Second, I think having a proper accent in the movie is very important to the credibility of the performances.  Itís not that Leoís Irish accent was bad, itís just that it kept slipping in and out as the movie went along.  Itís almost distracting.

 

One thing that Reggie and I agree with (along with, surprisingly, many other critics) is that Lewisís performance was extraordinary.  He has already garnered a Golden Globe nomination for this role, and he is a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination.  His character stands out like no other supporting role has this year.  He is both scary and respectable at the same time, in a weird way (though I think he starts to lose his mind near the end.)  If you see this movie for no other reason, see it for Lewisís performance.

 

Before I wrap it up, I have another one of my rapidly increasing ďminor gripes.Ē  The very last scene of the movie was cool and confusing at the same time.  Let me set it up for you (donít worry, this is not a spoiler):  we see the gravesites of the fallen rival leaders, buried side-by-side.  We then see what happens to the burial plot and its surroundings over the next 140 years.  We see the New York City skyline evolve over time.  The very last shot is supposedly the burial plot (which has long been washed away by time) and the skyline in 2002.  We see the Twin Towers in the background.  I thought it was cool of Scorsese to put them there and not pretend like they never existed (like so many fellow movie and TV makers have done.)  If he truly wanted to show the New York City skyline over time though, he should have had one shot with them in it, but then the very last shot should have shown the skyline without them.  They did exist at one time, but they donít anymore.  That should be acknowledged as well.

 

Gangs of New York is a great movie, with only a few strikes against it.  Like the recent Lord of the Rings movie, it is very long, but there are no boring parts.  I think Leo has his second Oscar-worthy performance here (stopped only by his magically disappearing accent.)  Go check out this movie which is sure to see a lot of Oscar love in February when the nominations are announced!

1/2

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