Film: Gangs of New York

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Film:

Gangs of New York

Director: Martin Scorsese
Honors:
Genres:
Distributor: Miramax Home Entertainment

Gangs of New York may achieve greatness with the passage of time. Mixed reviews were inevitable for a production this grand (and this troubled behind the scenes), but it’s as distinguished as any of director Martin Scorsese’s more celebrated New York stories. From its astonishing 1846 prologue to the city’s infernal draft riots of 1863, the film aspires to erase the decorum of textbooks and chronicle 19th-century New York as a cauldron of street warfare. The hostility is embodied in a tale of primal vengeance between Irish American son Amsterdam Vallon…

Reviews

Amazon.com

Gangs of New York may achieve greatness with the passage of time. Mixed reviews were inevitable for a production this grand (and this troubled behind the scenes), but it’s as distinguished as any of director Martin Scorsese’s more celebrated New York stories. From its astonishing 1846 prologue to the city’s infernal draft riots of 1863, the film aspires to erase the decorum of textbooks and chronicle 19th-century New York as a cauldron of street warfare. The hostility is embodied in a tale of primal vengeance between Irish American son Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his father’s ruthless killer and “Nativist” gang leader Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, brutally inspired), so named for his lethal talent with knives. Vallon’s vengeance is only marginally compelling; DiCaprio is arguably miscast, and Cameron Diaz (as Vallon’s pickpocket lover) is adrift in a film with little use for women. Despite these weaknesses, Scorsese’s mastery blossoms in his expert melding of personal and political trajectories; this is American history written in blood, unflinching, authentic, and utterly spectacular. —Jeff Shannon

Almost obliged to be huge, Gangs of New York marks the return to work of three much-admired creatives missing-in-action for the past few years: director Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. Vast, impressive and challenging, it’s unlike anything Scorsese has done in look and manner even as it is exactly the material he has obsessively turned over since his first films. A terrific 1846 prologue depicts a battle for supremacy over a district known as the Five Points between the “native-born American” mob led by William “Butcher” Cutting (Day-Lewis) and an Irish immigrant crew headed by “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson). The bloody outcome is the death of Priest and the rise to godfather-like prominence of the literally eagle-eyed Butcher (an eagle-marked marble replaces an eye he fished out in homage to his enemy!). Sixteen years later, Priest’s son Amsterdam (DiCaprio) shows up intent on revenge, but finds himself distracted as he is drawn into the Butcher’s inner circle much as another Scorsese Irishman hooked up with the mob in Goodfellas.

The film covers an array of New York historical topics—from the corrupt government of William “Boss” Tweed to the riots that rocked the community when President Lincoln tried to impose military conscription—while the actual plot wobbles slightly as Amsterdam gets involved with a winsome pickpocket (Cameron Diaz) and wavers in his vengeful resolve. DeCaprio and Diaz aren’t quite strong enough characters or players to hold things together—as in a few other recent Scorsese films, heroes are let off easily though they seem guilty of as many appalling crimes as the villains—but they have to compete with an award-worthy study in moustachioed menace and corruption from Day-Lewis and an array of the best supporting actors from either side of the Atlantic (Jim Broadbent, John C Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, David Hemmings). —Kim Newman

Barnes and Noble

Herbert Asbury’s nonfiction book The Gangs of New York—originally published in the late 1920s—has delighted readers for decades with its depiction of a 19th-century New York awash with crime, corruption, and poverty and peopled with larger-than-life figures who helped forge Gotham’s destiny. Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous, long-awaited adaptation of Asbury’s anecdotal history, shaped for the cinematic medium by screenwriter Jay Cocks, employs the time-honored dramatic devices of a traditional Hollywood epic, often delivering grandly on its considerable ambitions. There is a romantic triangle, a competition between father figure and son, and a revenge motif that fuels the nearly three-hour drama. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Amsterdam Vallon, an Irish immigrant’s son who sees his father murdered by the ruthless head of a “native” band that rules Lower Manhattan with an iron hand. When he reaches young adulthood, Leo infiltrates the band and becomes the adopted son of its leader, “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), whom he has sworn to kill. Cameron Diaz, in the most challenging role of her career, is Jenny, the fetching pickpocket loved by both men. Brendan Gleeson makes a strong impression as a burly Irish merchant who sells his soul for security, as does John C. Reilly, playing a corrupt cop on Cutting’s payroll. Scorsese, who constructed a full-scale replica of New York’s Five Corners neighborhood on the back lot of Rome’s Cinecittà Studio, re-creates the period with remarkable accuracy, although he sacrifices fidelity to the historical record on the altar of flamboyant filmmaking; numerous real-life events are altered and manipulated for dramatic effect, and some episodes are fabricated altogether. The end result, however, is a gripping representation of both splendor and squalor in preindustrial New York, and it earned Academy Award nominations in ten categories, including Best Picture. Leisurely paced, but rich in texture and color, Gangs of New York is an unforgettable movie and a worthy addition to Scorsese’s distinguished oeuvre. Ed Hulse

Related Works

Album:Gangs of New York: Music from the Motion Picture

Gangs of New York: Music from the Motion Picture

Howard Shore

Martin Scorsese’s sprawling meditation on the rise of street gangs in 19th-century New York (the roots of the modern mafia) also became another soundtrack buff’s “What If?” after the director scrapped the original orchestral underscore of modern collaborator (Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, Bringing Out the Dead)/veteran scoring legend Elmer Bernstein and replaced it with this typically rich, Robbie Robertson-supervised collection of eclectic pop, folk, and neo-classical tracks. The latter come courtesy of three brooding excerpts from film…

Book:The Gangs of New York

The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld

Herbert Asbury

Published to coincide with the release of Martin Scorsese’s film, Gangs of New York, starring Leonard DiCaprio, The Gangs of New York has long been hand-passed among its cult readership. It is a tour through a now unrecognizable city of abysmal poverty and habitual violence cobbled, as Luc Sante has written, “from legend, memory, police records, the self-aggrandizements of aging crooks, popular journalism, and solid historical research.” Asbury presents the definitive work on this subject, an illumination of the gangs of old New York that ultimately gave rise to the modern Mafia and its depiction in films like The Godfather.

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