It’s been 25 years since an advertisement in a Hollywood trade paper announced that director Martin Scorsese was in pre-production with a tale of 19th century street-fighting men called “Gangs of New York.” Now, a full quarter of a century later, we have the film before us. It has not been worth the wait.
“Gangs of New York” seems in that great passage of time to have lost its sense of story and its narrative drive, to have quite simply lost its way. Its two-hour and 45-minute length is elephantine enough to include an actual elephant, but what it doesn’t contain is any compelling reason for us to pay attention. Despite having Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonard DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz in a melodramatic story centered on murder and revenge, the film plays like an interminable airplane flight: You look at your watch, hoping its nearly time to land, only to realize with a sinking heart you’re not even halfway there.
While “Gangs” is surprisingly heavier on tedium than bloodshed, when we are not being bored we are being assaulted by the film’s palpable violence, always a Scorsese preoccupation and prominent enough here that some people are calling the result “Stab Wounds of New York.” Even though the scenes of sustained mayhem are one of the few areas where “Gangs” rouses itself and displays some energy, it’s also the area where you wish it hadn’t.
In fact, it was a depiction of a world permeated with violence as much as any specific characters or incidents that doubtless drew Scorsese to “Gangs of New York,” Herbert Asbury’s florid, print-the-legend chronicle of early underworld doings, first published in 1928 and long a favorite of writers from Jorge Luis Borges to William Burroughs.
The other place where “Gangs” shows some passion is in its determination to have the most meticulous re-creation of the old Five Points section of Lower Manhattan an estimated $100-million budget could facilitate. (Five Points was so infamous one unnerved 19th century reporter claimed “the very letters of the two words seem to redden with the bloodstains of unavenged crime.”)
So Scorsese and his cast made the well-publicized trek from the new world back to the old, setting up shop in Rome’s vast Cinecitta studio complex, where revered production designer Dante Ferretti set a working waterfront in a 3-million-gallon exterior tank and used more than 40 acres to painstakingly reconstruct several New York neighborhoods, accurate down to the cobblestones on the streets and the shingles on the roofs.
This fetish for authenticity (no, that’s not too strong a word) overflowed into other facets of the “Gangs” production. The film has a Chinese opera coordinator, a butchering advisor, a man in charge of hand-lettered signs, plus a consultant who taught vintage fighting methods. These things are hardly meretricious, but they should be means to an end, not ends in and of themselves. Unfortunately, what’s happened in “Gangs” is that all the time, money and energy invested in authenticity has both distracted the filmmakers from and enabled them to ignore the fact that nothing dramatically compelling is going on in those immaculately conceived and executed sets.
Despite the credited presence of Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, two of the best of Hollywood’s screenwriters, as well as original writer Jay Cocks, none of “Gang’s” main characters make any kind of meaningful emotional connection. The streets, shot by cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, may be as authentic as they are mean, but it is nearly impossible to care about what happens on them.
“Gangs” opens with an extended street-battle-prologue set in 1846, in which the foreigner-hating Native Americans led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis) take on an immigrant Irish group called the Dead Rabbits and commanded by the imposing Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson).
Technically, though, “Gangs of New York” opens with a sound that, given Scorsese’s predilections, is easily guessed to be a straight razor at work. When Vallon intentionally cuts his cheek, he tells his young son Amsterdam, in the first of the film’s numerous self-consciously mythic lines, “The blood stays on the blade. One day you’ll understand.” Don’t bet on it.
After seeing his father killed by the agile Butcher, Amsterdam disappears to be raised in an orphanage. He returns 16 years later as DiCaprio, a young man so changed by his theoretical thirst for revenge that of his father’s old comrades (Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, Gary Lewis) only his old boyhood chum Johnny (Henry Thomas) initially recognizes him as Priest’s son.
Equally oblivious is Bill the Butcher himself, who, in the way of movies since time immemorial, takes a shine to this lad with the murderous rage and makes him a surrogate son. In fact, so much of “Gangs” is spent on Amsterdam shelving his revenge and just chilling with Bill and the lithe pickpocket and confidence woman Jenny Everdeane (Diaz) he takes a violent fancy to that the film has to apologize for him with a voice-over line about how warm and cozy it is to be under a dragon’s wing.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who apparently listened to Eminem to keep his rage level up, gives an impeccable performance as the dandified, psychotic dragon Bill the Butcher. He’s a self-consciously theatrical gangster, all menace and malevolence, and he has our complete attention whenever he’s on screen. But as proficient as the work is, it’s a performance in a vacuum, so apart from the rest of the film that it can’t enlarge or feed it the way great performances classically do.
Facing even bigger problems is DiCaprio, who is simply miscast as an ace street fighter and all-around murderous type. Taking on a role that goes against his strengths (shown to good advantage in the forthcoming “Catch Me If You Can”), the strongest attitude DiCaprio can manage is the petulance of a sullen choir boy sulking because he’s been caught filching the Communion wine. No amount of intense training in authentic combat techniques can turn him into a plausible rival for Bill the Butcher, and the film suffers as a result.
That casting lapse also hamstrings “Gang’s” grandiose attempts to turn Amsterdam into something of a political leader as it sets this personal rivalry against the backdrop of the societal discontent that led to the Civil War draft riots of 1863. For “Gangs” does have a lust for larger themes, a desperate desire to be seen as saying something profound about the nature of the American experience and be what Scorsese has called “a template for what’s going on today.”
But using Amsterdam Vallon as a poster boy for multicultural democracy, a kind of early Tom Joad fighting for a more just and equal America, is way off the mark. You don’t need to carry a torch for Henry Fonda to see that there’s no way this kind of twerp can be a prototype of anything.
Because nothing feels at stake in this kind of disconnected filmmaking, a great deal of what “Gangs of New York” attempts comes off as disjointed and beside the point. “Gangs” does not, for instance, lack for local color, but instead of enriching the film, undoubtedly authentic folk -- bare-knuckle fighters, bearded cross-dressers, opium smokers and unclothed prostitutes -- turn the final product into a cluttered muddle, an overstuffed trunk of movie flotsam thrown together and packed in haste.
The film’s supporting cast of real people -- hey, there’s Horace Greeley, and isn’t that P.T. Barnum and, look, it’s Boss Tweed talking about his soon-to-be-infamous courthouse -- come off as window dressing, even when, as with Jim Broadbent as Tweed, the acting is expert. “Gangs’” voice-over describing mid-19th century New York as “a furnace where a city someday might be forged” sounds forced. Even the film’s closing song by U2 plays as lugubrious as its “The Hands That Built Ameria” title would have you fear.
The virtues of “Gangs,” a failed film but not a fiasco, are the virtues of a pageant, not a drama. Unable to make his personal obsessions compelling despite his unquestioned filmmaking skill, director Scorsese and his team have created a heavy-footed golem of a motion picture, hard to ignore as it throws its weight around but fatally lacking in anything resembling soul.
‘Gangs of New York’
MPAA rating: R, for intense violence, sexuality/nudity and language.
Times guidelines: Brutal violence throughout and racist language.
Leonardo DiCaprio ... Amsterdam Vallon
Daniel Day-Lewis... Bill the Butcher
Cameron Diaz ... Jenny Everdeane
Liam Neeson ... Priest Vallon
Jim Broadbent ... William “Boss” Tweed
Brendan Gleeson ... Monk McGinn
John C. Reilly ... Happy Jack
Henry Thomas ... Johnny
An Alberto Grimaldi production, released by Miramax Films. Director Martin Scorsese. Producers Alberto Grimaldi, Harvey Weinstein. Executive producers Michael Hausman, Maurizio Grimaldi. Screenplay Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. Story Jay Cocks. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Costumes Sandy Powell. Music Howard Shore. Production design Dante Ferretti. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.