Gangs of New York (2002)

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Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Henry Thomas, John C. Reilly, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson

Director: Martin Scorsese

Summary: In 1863, a man returns to the Five Points area of New York City seeking revenge against his father’s killer

Other Nominations: Director, Actor (Day-Lewis), Original Screenplay, Original Song (“The Hands That Built America”), Sound Mixing, Art Direction, Cinematography, Costume Design, Film Editing

Martin Scorsese’s passion project that he’s wanted to do since the 70s and he gets a $100 million budget! Daniel Day-Lewis’ first movie in five years! For a project this big, the final result is somewhat underwhelming. Gangs of New York covers an often ignored but important (and still very relevant to this day) chapter in American history: the battle between the nativists who were born in the United States and wanted to keep it a “pure” WASP place, often through violent means, and the immigrants who came here to try and find a better life. The problem is that, ultimately, the movie feels almost like a broad biblical epic in the vein of Ben-Hur than a movie about a hard-fought struggle for a piece of the American pie that would have made for a stronger story. Over the course of its near-three hour runtime, it tries to tackle too many stories and themes and goes too many places: we have a romance plot, a revenge story, a “I sold my birthright for a mess of pottage” story, a class between immigrants and minorities vs. white protestant natives, class struggle, the American Civil War and the corruption and pragmatism of the old Tammany Hall New York political system. The other issue is that big epic battles are not really Scorsese’s forte, yet we get two big ones to lead off and end the film where the music, editing, cinematography and fight choreography all come off poorly.

For me, there are two reasons why I still enjoyed the movie as flawed as it is. The first is Day-Lewis’ giving one of the great villain performances in film, lending a genuine menace and unpredictability to his role that is hard to match-he feels like he’s simmering and ready to explode into violence at any given moment. The other is the production design (which I’m shocked didn’t win an Oscar): the rough and tumble streets of old New York were painstakingly rebuilt in Italy and look incredibly authentic and the attention to detail is obvious. I liked the concept and the look of the film, along with Day-Lewis’ performance enough for me to give it a positive review, but there’s too many clunky bits for me to say it met my expectations coming in.

Rating: B-

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