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In Praise of "Gangs of New York"

James Campion on
In Praise of "Gangs of New York"

"Gangs of New York" is a masterpiece. Ripped from the pages of Herbert Asbury's brutal depiction of nineteenth century Manhattan street life, it is one of the finest films I have seen in years, and although I have enjoyed quite a few brilliant offerings at the movies since taking this post at the Reality Check News & Information Desk, it is only the second slice of celluloid art I've been motivated to devote a column to. Needless to say my two viewings of Martin Scorsese's latest effort, and I deign to write his best, left me in awe of the passion and dedication of one of this country's most celebrated filmmakers when he is forced to confront his most beguiling demons; the city of New York and his wavering faith in human kind.

Scorsese has wrestled with the idiosyncrasies of faith in the backdrop of the Big Apple before. His early Holy Trilogy includes the painfully autobiographical "Mean Streets", the disturbingly accurate portrayal of ‘70's Manhattan in "Taxi Driver", and the ultimate ode to blood sacrifice in "Raging Bull". He later vividly expounded on these themes in the stirring, if not flawed adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis' "The Last Temptation of Christ" and his up-to-now signature film, "Goodfellas", but the pure guts and raw honesty of "Gangs of New York" resonates in those wonderfully grimy artistic beginnings.

Every moment of "Gangs of New York" harkens Scorsese's best work, but eclipses it simply by tearing at the fabric of his normally metaphoric characterizations of the New York spirit/curse of true grit and tough love. "Gangs" takes his vision to a new level, paradoxically reveling in its victims as triumphant and villains as sympathetic deities.

Set in mid-nineteenth century lower Manhattan's combustible Five Points, amidst the racial and cultural upheaval of a birthing nation cracking under the weight of civil war, "Gangs" explores the epic struggle of humanity in the imposing shadow of a burgeoning city. Peasants from across the globe pour onto its streets, forced to subsist within the boundaries of corrupt law and violent religious reprisals, their will for survival roaring above the cannon fodder of a modernized American dream.
At its core, "Gangs" is a brutally honest psalm to this survival, the purest form of human survival in a chaotic landscape of prejudice, fear, pride and greed. New Yorkers trapped in a jungle of political strife and cultural mayhem which helped to give agonizing birth to the greatest city in the world.
An overtly violent film from one of the genre's most honest portrayers of street life, Scorsese strips bare the time-worn vengeance theme to unfold an almost Shakespearean quandary of good vs. evil, or past vs. the inevitable evolution of progress. Unlike recent historical epics that scratch the surface of this subject's moral imperative such as 1995's "Braveheart" and "Gladiator" of 2000, "Gangs of New York" presents characters of varying depths. The line between the villain and hero is constantly blurred, as in true life. There is no sacred vision, only the eruption of existence in a cold world.
Throughout this film, one does not just view, but experiences a time long before the veiled era of common sensibilities. Deep within the bloodstained streets and impoverished neighborhoods ruled with an iron hand by thieving politicians and frightened thugs the audience can never question the savage realities thrust from its rage, only wonder time and again how any society could thrive from it.
In addition to the combined writing efforts of Scorsese, Steven Zallian, Jay Cocks and Kenneth Lonergan's gripping screenplay brimming with memorable scenes (my favorites include the burning of a downtown building while rival fire companies rumble beneath the ravaging flames and a line of Irish immigrants simultaneously signing for their US citizenship and army induction moments after exiting the ship, handed a rifle and paraded onto a ship headed for the front) and quotes (When the participants of a hilariously dirty political campaign learn the candidate is a formally savage gang member with an inordinate amount of kills, the comment is simply, "We should have run him for mayor.") there are a number of memorable performances here as well.

Leonardo DiCacprio's role as the angst-riddled Amsterdam Vallon breathes new life into the resume of the once revered, but recently maligned young actor. He is the eyes and ears of the audience, lending an enticing, yet monotone, narration that ably accompanies Scorsese's sweeping scenes. Again, he is a far more believable heroic figure in a story and time when a steely fortitude was demanded not from the extraordinary but the everyman.

Cameron Diaz supports DiCaprio's dangerous journey with a fiery rendering of a wise and conniving street lass turned revolutionary and Jim Broadbent's lasting portrayal of the indomitably corruptible Boss Tweed, the famously insidious NY political power monger, is right on.

But "Gangs of New York" is all about Daniel Day-Lewis's mind-bending depiction of the outrageously evil William Cutting, aka "Bill the Butcher". He forcefully dominates the screen, cajoling, slashing, barking and bleeding, yet he plays the emotions of this psychologically damaged soul with a wry sensibility. Cutting is both sinner and saint, patriarchal charmer and black hand, a gory amalgamation of Scorsese's Jake La Motta meets Travis Bickle with the mind and mettle of a latter day mob boss. When considering the British actor's usually polished demeanor, it is literally mesmerizing.

Finally, "Gangs of New York" soars because it does not turn away from the nauseous reality of cultural fear and hatred, the perpetuation of skewered values based on race, creed and nationality. The film dissects the duplicitous struggle to face the crude nature of our traditions and generational sins, and for a three-hour romp through the darkest secrets of our human psyche, it's a damn entertaining ride.

© James Campion 2003

Dear JC,
Great review of "Gangs of New York". I will see the film based on your review. I was not planning to see it until now. I have one complaint however, Daniel Day -Lewis is an Irish actor who first came to the American film goers attention as the physically disabled artist/painter from the Dublin slums in the Irish Indy film "My Left Foot", also portrayed Hawkeye in the latest remake of the Fenimore Cooper novel "Last of The Mohicans" not exactly roles where the character is a polished gentleman. If you have not seen "My Left Foot" please go out and see it. One of the most striking films I have ever seen. Keep up the Great work, even when I don't agree with you (Ani DiFranco Interview) you are always thought provoking.
An excellent look at the new Scorscese film. I've really wanted to go see this thing, but you've brought the point home for me with this piece.
Al Quagliata
Mr. Campion:
I laugh about "Gangs of New York" because I recently saw a clip of Martin Scorscese blocking out a scene of the movie, and about five "yes" men were tagging behind, nodding and stroking his ego. He was so incoherent, so eccentric; I said that if anyone truly likes the movie, I'll pay the nine bucks to go see it. So thank you for helping me part with no small percentage of my paycheck.
But tell me. Do I see the movie, or buy the book?
Maintain radio contact,
Dear Mr. Campion,
I'm writing to commend you on the book you wrote about my favorite guys, the band DogVoices. Not only was "Deep Tank Jersey" interesting to see what went on in the early years, the way you wove the story kept me going. I found it to be quite "deep" and passionate. From that book, one can tell you are not a "surface" person, one that does not fail to look farther than the back door. I completely enjoyed the book and am quite thankful I had the opportunity to tell you so.
Thank you, and GREAT JOB!!!!
Hehehehe.. *applaudes* on your "Selective Patriotism" column! Bubba
can't go hunting in the forest and expect to get all the animals at once
with one gun.
Marie TL
Hey James,
Great article. No one can say you don't have spunk. Anything that includes a sentence that starts with "Those crazy fuckers" can't be that bad.


Dirty Lenny
James Campion gives a Reality check on Lenny Bruce

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