Dir: Martin Scorsese. US. 2002. 165 mins.
In terms of old-fashioned spectacle, few films today come anywhere near Martin Scorsese's Gangs Of New York. Already a part of movie folklore, the shooting of Gangs on mammoth sets at Rome's Cinecitta Studios is probably the last of its kind. A gargantuan undertaking, with a budget in excess of $100m, the film is genuinely awe-inspiring to behold. When the Uruk armies march in The Lord Of The Rings, audiences marvel at the skills of the CGI effects creators. When the gangs go into battle in Scorsese's film, the sight is all the more impressive for being real.
Gangs is a great spectacle, but it's a disappointing film. While the historical setting of 1862 New York City is intriguing and the details of the burgeoning city painstakingly recreated, the story here is a slight one of revenge, spun out over a running time more suitable to a far more complicated tale. The great director's fascination with the history of the city shines through as a backdrop, but the screenplay - which went through numerous drafts by Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan among others - just doesn't create compelling characters to play against it. Certainly Scorsese fails to make us care for them the way he did with disturbed folk like Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver) or Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull).
Box office prospects are nevertheless strong, with bloodthirsty male audiences especially likely to part with their money to see it. Awareness is very high, the stars on show - led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz -are at the height of their fame and glamour, the spectacle is unlike anything else on screens today and the action is steady and constant.
Perhaps the problem is that expectations are so high. Gangs shouldn't be viewed in the same prestige terms as the old Scorsese pictures but more as a major studio blockbuster, a bloody old-fashioned western of right versus wrong. It recalls The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, High Plains Drifter or The Wild Bunch with its mythic themes of revenge and abundance of violence, but never achieves the complexity or richness of the great urban epics like Les Enfants Du Paradis or The Godfather.
Of course, this is Scorsese, so the technical aspects of the film-making are top-notch and there is at least one great performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as a New York Nativist called William Cutting aka "Bill The Butcher" who rules the lawless neighbourhood of the old city called the Five Points and fights to maintain supremacy over the influx of Irish immigrants.
The film begins in powerful style as Irish warrior Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) leads out his gang, the Dead Rabbits, to battle Cutting and his army of Nativists in 1846. Witnessing the battle and his father's death at the hands of Cutting is Priest's son Amsterdam, who is sent to a state educational institution outside the city only to return as grown-up Amsterdam (DiCaprio) 16 years later.
Amsterdam is determined to have his revenge against Cutting and works his way into his inner circle with the intention of killing him on the anniversary of his father's death. Among the colourful characters he meets in the Five Points are beautiful pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Diaz), the corrupt local police chief Happy Jack (Reilly), ambivalent Irish warrior Monk McGinn (Gleeson), an old childhood friend Jonny (Thomas) and an opportunistic politician William Tweed (Broadbent).
When Amsterdam's identity becomes known to Cutting, Cutting nearly kills him. Amsterdam realises that only by rallying and organising the Irish immigrant populace can he beat him. Meanwhile the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863 erupt in New York City, sending the city into an explosion of violence.
While reviews will be mixed, awards prospects are plentiful. Day-Lewis is mesmerising as the menacing fear-monger Bill The Butcher and Diaz cultivates a fine Irish accent and an appealing spirit as Jenny. The cinematography by Ballhaus, costumes by Sandy Powell and production design by Dante Ferretti are all Oscar-worthy. Will this be the film for which Scorsese wins his directing Oscar' He deserves recognition for the scope and ambition of the movie, and it's definitely his turn, but then again he should really have won for more brilliant work on Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or Goodfellas, so does it really matter'
Prod cos: Cappa Productions, Miramax Films.
US dist: Miramax Films.
Int'l sales: Initial Entertainment Group.
Prods: Alberto Grimaldi, Harvey Weinstein.
Scr: Jay Cocks & Steven Zaillian & Kenneth Lonergan, from a story by Jay Cocks.
DoP: Michael Ballhaus.
Prod des: Dante Ferretti.
Ed: Thelma Schoonmaker.
Mus: Howard Shore.
Main cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, John C Reilly, Henry Thomas, David Hemmings, Cara Seymour