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Gangs of New York (18)



Review by: Jack Foley | Rating: Two

DVD SPECIAL FEATURES: Disc One: Audio commentary with Martin Scorsese.
Disc Two: Set design; Multi-angle feature exploring the sets; Costume design; History of the Five Points area in New York; Five Points study guide; Discovery Channel show 'Uncovering The Real Gangs of New York'; U2 'The Hands That Built America' music video; Making of; Theatrical trailer

A LABOUR of love, in film terms, can either be the crowning achievement of any career (as with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy), or an absolute disaster for all concerned (as with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate).

Given the history surrounding Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, the film could quite easily have fallen into the latter category.

Filming began in August 2000 after a 25-year development process and ended up costing Miramax $90 million, while the release date was repeatedly changed following a row over the movie’s running time (it is now two hours and 45 minutes, compared with the four hour print that Scorsese allegedly wanted to put out).

But the result is an epic achievement; a bloody slice of little known history that succeeds on the grandest of scales, even though there are flaws for all to see.

Set in and around the Five Points district of Manhattan during a 17-year period, from 1846 to 1863, the movie opens with a brutal gang battle, during which a young child, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), is forced to watch helplessly as his father is slain at the hands of Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Sent away to an orphanage, Vallon grows up vowing revenge and returns to the district years later, quickly infiltrating Bill’s ‘Native Americans’ gang in a bid to get close to its blood-thirsty leader, only to find a father figure in the man he has set out to kill.

The moral conundrum which follows is played out against the backdrop of the American Civil War, one of the darkest periods in US history, which resulted in the draft riots of 1863, when the army engaged in a running battle with New York’s civilians, turning the streets red with blood.

As such, Scorsese’s film functions on two levels - as both a classic story of revenge, well told, and as a fascinating historical charter, with an uncanny eye for detail.

The look of the film is awesome (it was filmed at the Cinecitta studios in Rome), while the performances are almost universally excellent, with Day-Lewis stealing the show as the psychotic yet honourable Bill, combining elements of De Niro-inspired paranoia with something altogether more sinister and believable. His tussle with DiCaprio is extremely well-played.

Yet there are times when the film feels as though it is missing something. Though steeped in history, much of what happens during the spectacular finale lacks the emotional punch you feel it warrants, partly because many of the characters involved have been afforded such little screen-time.

The upper classes, for instance, only appear fleetingly early on, while one key member of DiCaprio’s gang feels chronically under-developed, given the nature of his fate. It is during these moments that one feels that the longer print may have been more helpful, as would a greater understanding of the history of the time - for the romanticism which now surrounds the Big Apple was borne out of a rotten core.

That said, Scorsese’s labour of love remains a magnificent movie, punctuated by some awe-inspiring set pieces and some powerhouse acting from a cast which also includes John C Reilly, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson and Cameron Diaz.

This is, in short, a movie buff’s dream - a glorious celebration of all things Scorsese (many of his recurrent themes are explored on a far grander scale) which recalls a bygone era of Hollywood film-making (mixing the grandeur of Sergio Leone with the tragedy of Shakespeare). It is a masterpiece - albeit a flawed one.

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