Monday, 19 November 2012

Gangs of New York (2002) - ★★★★

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jay Cocks
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Brendan Gleeson, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson

Gangs of New York is a film about the 'hands that built America.' It's visually stunning and riveting from start to finish. I thoroughly enjoyed this film, except for one key component. That is DiCaprio's performance as the main character Amsterdam Vallon. 

Set in 1863 and during the time of the American Civil War, Gangs of New York shows that America was born in the streets. It begins with a brutal battle between rival gangs, one side led by 'Priest' Vallon (Liam Neeson), the other Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). After Bill wins the battle and kills Vallon, his son Amsterdam returns to the Five Points seeking vengeance against the psychotic gangland kingpin. Along the way he falls for pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz), who stays by his side as he creates a whole new army. With the Civil War affecting New York and thousands of Irish immigrants pouring into the streets, the fight for vengeance is much more complicated for Vallon. 

Daniel Day-Lewis absolutely shines in one of his greatest performances as Bill the Butcher. He lit up every scene with his superior skills in acting, turning this good movie into a great one. It is easy to like him, but even easier to hate him, with his racist beliefs and the blood that is on his hands. With that said, he made DiCaprio's so-so performance fade into the background.

For a film that follows his character's story, there was nothing DiCaprio could do to save him from becoming almost obsolete in the grand scheme of things. I was rooting for his character, yet put off by one major issue. I think DiCaprio is pretty good at accents, but he was very inconsistent with maintaining his Irish accent. In the voice-over scenes he sounded Irish enough, but when the time came for him to speak on screen, it faded into his usual American accent. He had the same trouble with the film Blood Diamond, which unfortunately takes away from the film.

The supporting cast however did a phenomenal job. Diaz turned out a good performance as Jenny, who was both likable and believable as an Irish woman. Brendan Gleeson commanded much screen presence as Walter McGinn, a man who hates Bill with a fiery passion. Jim Broadbent also gave a great performance as William Tweed, a politician that exchanges favors with the gang bosses of New York.

The cinematography throughout the film was truly magnificent. It was incredible to see the detail and effort that went into the making of old New York. This was one of the most important parts of the film, and Michael Ballhaus did a masterful job at reconstructing the great city. I also liked the music that accompanied many scenes in the film, albeit unorthodox for such a film as this. I say this because it is quite modern, considering the period that Gangs of New York is set it.

What truly made this film great for me was the build up towards the ending, and of course the ending itself. It was thrilling to see the backlash that conscription during the Civil War caused in New York at the time. The war that was about to happen between Vallon and Bill was almost as thrilling, but seemed secondary in comparison to the historic significance of the riots.

In the end we find that the quarrels between two men don't amount "to a hill of beans." The violent and destructive riots of the Civil War swallow up the main story of vengeance, leaving the audience with the premise that in the grand scheme of things, the grievances between Vallon and Bill are insignificant. What I truly loved about this film is that it admits that the story isn't as big as the events surrounding it at the time. This is one of Scorsese's best films.

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