Gangs of New York (2002) Review

Director: Martin Scorsese

Genre(s): Crime, Drama, War

Runtime: 167 minutes

MPAA Rating: R

IMDb Page

Gangs of New York is a sprawling crime epic set among the feuding rival gangs of New York City (a shocker, I know) during the time of the American Civil War. A bit more specifically, it’s about Amsterdam Vallon’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) attempts to kill knife-slinging, nativist mob boss Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Due to the different, colorful criminal groups, it almost resembles a mega-budget, nineteenth-century version of The Warriors (1979) at times. This film is certainly entertaining and has top-notch production values, but it feels oddly hollow.

First of all, the movie’s most famous aspect, Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Bill the Butcher is justly celebrated. It’s a powerhouse role that keeps the picture moving along smoothly. That being said, I wish I felt more of the burning desire for revenge felt by Leonardo DiCaprio’s character. With the exception of some mandatory romance, it’s a pretty quickly paced flick that feels shorter than its two-and-three-quarters-of-an-hour runtime. The musical score from Howard Shore also deserves to be mentioned in a positive light.

Martin Scorsese’s direction is sometimes hyperactive here, especially during action or action-related sequences. It almost feels like the directing equivalent of ham-acting, but I don’t really have a problem with that. The massive action scenes that bookend the film, a huge gangland turf brawl at the beginning and a big-budget depiction of the 1863 New York City draft riots towards the end, are sights to see. At first, I thought the large scale of opening fight was done in an expressionistic, non-literal manner to reinforce how big it must have seen through the eyes of the children watching, but, as the movie went on, it seemed like there was probably nothing figurative about its scale at all. The picture’s body count is near-apocalyptic, one of the highest for any gangster picture that doesn’t double as an action movie.

Despite all of the terrific spectacle, I’m not really quite sure what Gangs of New York is trying to say. Its borderline nihilistic tone and world of depraved crooks and corruption gets in the way of being invested too fully in the characters. Still, it’s hard not to recommend it, because when things go right (Day-Lewis’ performance, the action sequences and the build-up to them, etc.), they go very right. It’s a mobster movie with a historical twist that’s good enough to watch at least once.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

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