Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Drama Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York (2002)

Gangs of New York certainly looks good. While I wasn’t in New York during the 1800s, I felt like I was after watching this movie. It captures both the look and the feel of the era, and you should watch it just to spend almost three hours in this place. And, hey, this is supposedly based of semi-true events, so you’ll be learning something in the process. Add on a couple of very, very good performances, and you have the makings of a good movie.

We begin with an absolutely amazing battle scene involving two gangs fighting for their right to survive in New York, sometime in the mid 1800s. The leader of one gang, the “Natives,” is Bill Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), while the other, the “Dead Rabbits,” is led by Priest (Liam Neeson). We get a touch of buildup, and then we see the battle. It’s gruesome without being graphic, and it’s visceral without being gory. It’s also very thrilling and perfectly staged. Cutting wins, and we see the respect that he had for his fallen rival. The Dead Rabbits is forced to disband, leaving Priest’s son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), alone in the world.

Sixteen years pass, and Amsterdam returns to New York, seeking revenge. He isn’t going to just go kill Mr. Cutting, though, presumably because that would be too easy. He decides instead to befriend him, infiltrate his system of trust, and then stab him in the back. Why? Because that’s the only way that we can get to the point in America’s history where conscription began to come about, because we need to have those opposed to the draft rise up and become rebels, making sure that the film is about something more than a simple revenge story.

Eventually, we do build up to a sequence of events wherein Amsterdam and Cutting finally get to settle their differences, and the rioters get their time to shine. After the prologue, this is the best part of the movie. It’s also the end, and there are approximately two hours between these two points in time which need to be filled. Unfortunately, not all of that time is a worthwhile watch, leading to some boredom, some tedium, and a viewing experience that, at times, seems to drag on and on.

And it’s not as if there wasn’t room to cut. There’s a love interest in the film for Amsterdam played by Cameron Diaz that could have been completely removed, shaving off 20 minutes or so, and the film would be better for it. Not only would we remove Diaz, which is almost always a plus, but we’d cut out an element that simply didn’t work. Diaz and DiCaprio had no chemistry, there’s little actual focus on the relationship, and it pads the film’s running time — which definitely didn’t need padding.

A long movie is fine if the story and characters can justify that running time. If there’s something here worth telling, then I’m fine with a film taking its 3 hours. But there are only three main characters here, only one of whom (Cutting) is actually interesting, and the story has been told before, better, and in a much shorter time frame. Sure, a slow burn as Amsterdam gets in close with Cutting makes it more plausible, but the magic of film would allow for that anyway.

With that said, for the most part, I didn’t mind the length because of how stunning Gangs of New York is to look at. From the set design to the costuming to the cinematography — everything is gorgeous. You believe that you’re in this era, and you want to stay just to learn more about it. It’s an amazing film to look at, and if all you want is eye-candy that’s not all special effects, this is the film for you. Nobody does this kind of thing better than Martin Scorsese.

However, not a whole lot happens in those two hours in the middle of the film, and if you’re hoping for some really fun moments, you’ll be missing out. It’s a mostly dialogue-driven film, and while that’s not really a bad thing, the beginning scene sets our expectations up and then doesn’t live up to them. The inevitable battle between Amsterdam and Cutting stars building as soon as the former arrives back in Lower Manhattan, but nothing actually comes of it for far too long. There aren’t even many tense scenes in which Amsterdam is possibly going to be found out; he just goes about his business without any conflict for most of the time.

Daniel Day-Lewis is the star of Gangs of New York, even if he isn’t the main character. He steals the show in every scene he’s in, with the determination and screen presence that captivates. He’s charismatic, yet evil, conflicted and complex, but with simple desires and ambitions. You understand all of this not all because of the script, but because of the performance turned in by Day-Lewis.

Gangs of New York is a movie that looks beautiful, has a few moments of brilliance, and has one tremendous performance, but also drags on and contains a pointless love interest that hurts it. It ultimately does overcome its flaws, thanks to how beautiful it looks and how it makes you feel like you’re back in the 1880s, but if you’re in the mood for a short dose of adrenaline, this isn’t the film for you. It’s a slow burn that’s worth it only for the patient among you.

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