Gangs of New York: Sweeney Todd + Ken Burns = …Meh.

Gangs of New York

Image source. Copyright Miramax Films, 2002.

Gangs of New York really should’ve been two movies. Martin Scorsese, usually very good at his job, has tried to do too much in one film, to combine a personal vengeance story with a massive 19th-century-urban-America historical epic. The result: a muddled mess. It has its virtues, but Gangs overall sinks under the weight of its extravagant ambitions.

The film starts with a standard revenge-movie setup. Five-year old Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) watches a gang fight where his father (Liam Neeson) dies at the hands of Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). After spending the rest of his childhood in an orphanage, Amsterdam returns to the scene of the crime some 20 years later, where he teams up with his old friend Johnny (Henry Thomas) to take down Cutting once and for all. He decides to disguise his identity so he can work for the Butcher and gain his trust – revenge from the inside out. Will Amsterdam’s plan succeed?

Unfortunately, Scorsese punts on an answer. The movie subsequently spends over one hour…going in circles. We see Amsterdam gain connections and fall for a sneaky woman thief (Cameron Diaz). But Scorsese chooses to spend the bulk of the running time meticulously cataloging the various alliances and rivalries between the immigrants, nativists, and political bosses all jockeying for power in pre-Civil War New York. Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), everyone’s favorite corrupt politician, gets plenty of screen time to scheme with Cutting on how to tighten his grip on the city’s political system. But for what? After Scorsese’s exposition of New York life is done – which, in his defense, is filmed well – the original revenge plotline has all but faded into the background. Cutting comes to trust Amsterdam so much that we end up wondering why Amsterdam doesn’t seize the moment to kill Cutting sooner. Why wait till after the long digression about New York immigrant life, by which point we’ve pretty much forgotten you wanted to kill Cutting anyway?

Then, just as we’re discovering Scorsese’s hidden talents as a documentary filmmaker, he seizes on the revenge story again in the second half, after Amsterdam suffers a crushing betrayal and Cutting, having learned Amsterdam’s true identity, turns on him. The pace finally picks back up as Amsterdam returns to plotting retribution. And then…Scorsese once again decides to go all historical-epic by spending time depicting the lower classes’ hostility towards the Civil War draft. The movie ends up having two climaxes for its two stories: for the revenge one, a final duel between the Butcher and Amsterdam; for the historical, the 1863 New York City draft riots. Scorsese tries to tie these two separate strands together. But the result, by trying to make both themes count, leaves neither of them resonating. By the time the movie closes with U2’s “The Hands That Built America” and a final montage of images of New York’s growing skyline over the next 140 years, the anticlimactic conclusion has already turned us off.

In all fairness, this movie has its good points. All the historical aspects of the film have clearly been painstakingly constructed and choreographed. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as the Butcher is marvelous. And a movie solely focusing on Amsterdam’s quest for revenge, even with Scorsese at the helm, would probably have been cliché. Still, Scorsese definitely could have made Gangs at least an hour shorter and retained the film’s core. If you’re looking for another Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, or Goodfellas, don’t watch this. You’ll be sorely disappointed.

Vital Stats:

Gangs of New York (2002)

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent

Running Time: 167 minutes

Rating: R

Produced by: Alberto Grimaldi, Harvey Weinstein

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Written by: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan