There exists a fairly famous Scottish book entitled No Mean City. Written in the 1930’s, it chronicles the fictionalised account of the brutal razor gangs that ran in the Gorbals slums of Glasgow in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s gory and frankly scary stuff, which makes you glad you live in such relatively civilized times. It’s a part of the city’s history that many would probably like to consign to history’s waste bin, but is, nevertheless, an important chapter in its formation, and would probably make a good film.
Martin Scorcese’s epic Gangs Of New York has beaten it to the punch, however. It’s a beautifully crafted movie which introduces us to the New York gangs of the Five Points area, a notorious slum in which supremacy was fought over by the “natives” and the Irish immigrants who arrived in their thousands from across the Atlantic. Scorcese’s movie is both a Shakespearean tale of revenge, honour and love, and a fascinating political history essay and paen to the New York of yesteryear. It is engrossing in its carefully crafted blending of historical events and fictionalised drama.
It opens with a vicious street battle in the Five Points of 1846 between the Irish Catholic “Dead Rabbits” gang, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), and the Natives, “born right-wise” to American soil, led by Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, played by an elemental Daniel Day-Lewis. As his young son Amsterdam looks on, Bill fells Vallon, and the Rabbits are declared outlawed. Amsterdam is then taken to Hellgate reform school before emerging years later looking an awful lot like Leonardo DiCaprio, whereupon he worms his way into Bill’s inner circle in order to take revenge on his father’s killer.
He gets cosy with Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a female pickpocket and sometime-floozy of Bill’s, and establishes his credentials as a fighter by battering the pug-faced McGloin (Gary Lewis), one of Bill’s stooges who once fought alongside his father, and saving Bill from an assassination attempt. Amidst the backdrop of a New York about to be torn apart by the infamous draft riots and the corrupt political machinations of Tammany Hall head honcho William Tweed (Jim Broadbent), young Vallon attempts to reform the outlawed Dead Rabbits and lead the rebellion against Cutting and his nativist horde, hopefully without being carved into steaks.
The engine that is Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives a thundering performance as Bill the Butcher, powers the movie. Alternately psychotic, honourable, sensitive, cruel and cunning, this would be half the movie it is if not for his electric presence, and an Oscar should have gone his way, no question. Bill is essentially a racist who believes that his America is being befouled by the constant influx of Irish immigrants and Catholicism, but who still treats his enemies with respect, regarding the street fight as a noble method of resolving differences and establishing the order of things.
When his knife dispatches Priest Vallon, he declares, “No hand shall touch him! He’ll cross over whole, with honour.” Vallon’s death is even commemorated each year by the Nativists, and as Bill admits in one quietly intense and revealing scene with Amsterdam, “He was the only man I ever killed worth remembering”. Day-Lewis plays the part brilliantly, from the accent to the chilling icy cold that the man radiates even when being charming.
There are impressive performances from selected members of the supporting cast too, namely the ever-excellent Jim Broadbent, the aforementioned Gary Lewis (My Name Is Joe, Orphans), and the great Brendan Gleeson, who you may recognise from Braveheart and A.I. (incidentally, if you haven’t seen his performance in John Boorman’s The General then you’re strongly advised to get hold of it.)
The basic story is not a particularly original idea if you’ve read Hamlet, or even seen The Lion King – son avenges father, finds his courage, discovers who he is blah blah blah. But it works well enough and the potentially grating edge of its familiarity is taken off by the skilful build-up to the draft riots and the charisma of Day-Lewis. New York is depicted as “not so much a city as a furnace, where a city one day might be forged.” We see illegal boxing matches, depraved drinking and opium dens, betting pits where dogs take rats apart in a matter of seconds, fire companies who battle each other in the streets for insurance company payouts, public hangings and exotic Chinese pagoda theatres.
Dante Ferretti’s amazingly detailed and constructed sets give the movie a wonderfully authentic feel – you can almost smell the booze, blood and filth. The battle scenes are fairly brutal, but oddly, not as gory or graphic as I had expected from a Scorcese film. There’s certainly little as grisly as the opening car trunk knifing from Goodfellas, or the horrifying baseball bat beating at the climax of Casino.
In fact, one gets the feeling that Scorcese either toned the violence down a tad for his hoped-for multiplex audience, or found himself under pressure from the studio to go a bit easier. There’s certainly a slight touch of Hollywood in this film, almost as if it received the James Cameron stamp of approval before release. It’s still scary stuff, mind – you’ll see meat cleavers hurled into people’s backs, slashed throats, severed ears and people being burned while hanging from lamp posts. There’s also a gripping scene in the Chinese pagoda where Bill gives a public display of his knife throwing skills, using Jenny as his assistant, while a nervy Amsterdam hesitantly prepares to make his move.
Amsterdam’s role is that of the son seeking to avenge the father, but he becomes the son that Bill never had, and finds himself rather taking to life in Bill’s company: “It’s a strange feeling, being taken under the wing of the dragon…It’s warmer than you think”. The film revolves around their relationship and eventual confrontation, and as with Priest Vallon, Bill comes to regard his opponent with respect – there is a neat echo of the final scene in Heat where Pacino and DeNiro hold hands, at one point.
Scorcese and his team do a fine job of the numerous battle and rioting scenes, particularly towards the climax as the city seems to be spiralling towards anarchy and uproar, and there is a bittersweet taste to the vision of the gangs and the general underclass of New York being crushed beneath the wheels of government and martial law. It’s as though Scorcese recognizes the brutality and primitive nature of people such as Bill and Amsterdam, and their respective gangs, and knows that they must be swept away, but cannot help feeling sadness at their passing as a legitimate part of history. He definitely romanticises them, but to be honest, it makes for a better film. And the final shot is a classic: a view of the New York skyline from a graveyard where Priest Vallon is buried, which gradually changes as the decades pass until we see the present day version with the Twin Towers spookily looming, and U2’s The Hands That Built America takes us into the credits.
It’s a little unfortunate, therefore, that Scorcese didn’t think to complement his film by using a cast comprising the very best actors he could get, and instead went for a mix of a few great actors, and a couple of Hollywood stars, presumably to pull in those crowds. In 2002 Leonardo DiCaprio had not yet discovered the acting chops he would display in The Departed, and here he simply does not convey the adequate rage and complexity that a character such as Amsterdam should have, and is too weedy-looking to be convincing as a fearsome gang leader. No wonder Bill the Butcher looks distinctly unconcerned by his challenge.
It’s possible Cameron Diaz may yet turn out to be a great actress, but judged by her showing here she’s simply some eye-candy who’s been shoehorned into this movie to maximise the box office. To be a little fairer on her, her character is badly written, and may as well have carried a wooden placard that read “LEO’S LOVE INTEREST”. She doesn’t contribute significantly to the plot, and her “Oirish” accent is as laughably bad as DiCaprio’s. The film would also benefit from having about 20-30 minutes shaved off, as it is on the long side, and things start to get confusing and scrappy in the last half hour.
However, if you can overlook these flaws, Gangs Of New York is an entertaining and occasionally thrilling essay on a forgotten page of New York’s history. It’s not quite the masterpiece it could have been, but it’s still a Scorcese film and has plenty going for it. Quite how the Oscar panel managed to favour the second-hand theatrical fluff of Chicago over this is frankly a crime deserving of a well-aimed meat cleaver.