Sunday, December 22, 2002

Gangs of New York (IMDB) (Netflix)
An epic struggle between two men – each a relentless, irrestible force – that may end tragically for both. And that's just the relationship between director Martin Scorsese and Harvey Weinstein, the head of Miramax Studios. Scorsese grew up in the New York gangs, and has been trying to make this film for 30 years. To do it, he had to go to Italy and build a 1.5 square mile re-creation of New York's tempestuous Five Points district from the mid-19th century, requiring a financial backer with equal brass, which Weinstein, the bête noir of the movie business, has in spades. Both men are control freaks and perfectionists, and each apparently met his match in the other.

The story allows Scorsese to explore all his favorite themes: religion, gangs, crime, violence and the immigrant experience. Leonardo DiCaprio's Irish immigrant father is killed by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) when Leo is just a tot, and sixteen years later he's out to settle the score, just as the Civil War is heating up, bringing about a new and unwelcome concept in citizenship: conscription. Leo befriends Cameron Diaz, a pickpocket and Bill's old girlfriend, at the point of a knife (the interesting part is who's holding it) and worms his way into the Butcher's inner circle.

It's a part of American history that's largely unexplored and needs telling, especially in the movies, and if effort and intentions guaranteed perfection, this would be one of the best films ever made. It's not, but you have to admire the scope of it, the noble ambition. Day-Lewis is already being talked up for an Oscar (no argument here) and the set should get best supporting actor. DiCaprio doesn't have the juicy part to balance off his co-star, but holds his own in the performance, as does Diaz. Some connective tissue, however, seems to have been lost in the editing, which might be a surprise given the two hour and forty-five minute length. Gangs of New York may have over-reached, but by forcefully exposing one of our darkest periods, serves a larger purpose than mere spectacle. Vegetarians might want to pass.