It's hard to resist the promise of a film like Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York. Scorsese has long been a great admirer of cinematic epics of yore, from the silent yarns of Griffith and Stroheim, to the historical and operatic grandeur of Luchino Visconti's great films Senso, Rocco and His Brothers and The Leopard.
Gangs of New York marks Scorsese's own foray into sweeping historical melodrama. From the outset it's clear he's thinking big, bent on making Gangs something on the order of a creation myth for New York City. The resulting film chronicles the lives of Irish immigrants during the Civil War and their violent struggle for acceptance in a New York City which was still largely Anglo-Protestant at the time.
The film is largely set in Five Points, New York's most notorious neighborhood in the mid-1800s. (Most of the district was condemned late in the 19th century; now the area is part of Chinatown.) Five Points was home to unruly hordes of desperately poor Irish immigrants who flooded New York to escape the great Irish potato famine, the apex of which occurred in 1847.
Gangs opens the year before, in a hellish, torchlit subterranean hideout, as a leader named Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) masses the troops in his Irish street gang, the Dead Rabbits, for an impending rumble against an anti-immigrant gang, the Natives.
Out on the streets, the Irish tribes led by Vallon's gang wait a long couple of minutes for their opponents. Finally, the Natives appear, outfitted with blue sashes and led by the fearsome Bill "The Butcher" Cutting.
They square off, and the two leaders exchange loud declarations of purpose. The Irish are fed up with the abuse they've gotten from the Natives, who in turn are asserting their prerogatives over the despised, potato-eating Papists. Priest and Bill the Butcher shout their pronouncements in a self-consciously medieval fashion, before the latter bawls, "Prepare to receive the true Lord!"
As was surely Scorsese's intention, this curtain-raising action scene seems less like a gritty 19th-century Mean Streets than a sequence from Braveheart or, for that matter, The Two Towers. An incredibly bloody battle ensues, and Scorsese's camera relishes each cracked skull and impaling. It ends badly for the Irish and for Priest, who dies in the arms of his young son, Amsterdam.
Many of the film's problems are apparent right at the start. The lengthy prologue establishes Scorsese's interest in myth. But after all that blood is spilled, it's distressingly clear that Gangs is going to be a three-hour revenge drama with frequent and garish explosions of violence. Since the noble father has fallen, it will be his son's destiny to exact revenge on his killer, Bill the Butcher (who is played by a smirking, scenery-chewing Daniel Day-Lewis).
The next problem is revealed immediately afterward when the film fast-forwards 16 years to 1862, when Amsterdam is released from an orphanage in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio.
DiCaprio's been away from the movie screens for a while, and it's startling to see how beefy--beery, even--he's become during the time away. He may have been a lithe, twinkling charmer back in the day, but now, in Gangs, he's bloated, sullen and lifeless.
No doubt many 19th-century thugs, Irish and otherwise, looked like him. Still, they weren't asked to carry an epic film about a warrior-prince returning from exile against the roiling backdrop of the American Civil War.
DiCaprio's Amsterdam returns to a Five Points now under the firm control of Butcher Bill. Looking about for work, he meets a fetching pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane. Cameron Diaz breathes some life into the film with her early scenes in the role--there's probably not a more radiant face in the movies than hers. If she doesn't exactly convince as a period character, her merciless thieving, in both the 'hood and stately uptown mansions, suggests more interesting directions the film could have taken.
Meanwhile, Amsterdam goes to work for Bill's crime syndicate, without Bill's knowledge of his true identity. He's an eager student, and the childless Cutting assigns himself the task of being a surrogate father to the upstart. Amsterdam's rise holds little dramatic interest, but through these scenes, details of this particular historical moment begin to emerge.
The country was at war, of course, and Lincoln had instituted a conscription system that allowed men to buy their way out of service for $300. The result: an army of paupers, and one disproportionately made up of immigrants. Just as outrageous, people fleeing Ireland were arriving in America only to discover the price of their passage was immediate conscription into the Army.
Scorsese throws in enough foreshadowing in Gangs' first two hours to telegraph that the film will culminate in the New York draft riots of 1863. In life, as in Scorsese's film, Irish laborers and criminals went on a citywide rampage, torching buildings, attacking lawmen and increasingly directing their wrath against African Americans.
Even given the 1992 riots in Los Angeles following the arrest of Rodney King, the 1991 Crown Heights affair, and the 1960s civil rights demonstrations in Harlem, Watts and Atlanta, the New York draft protests remain the single worst urban riot in American history. They left over a hundred dead, and Lincoln had to divert five regiments from the bloodbath simultaneously occurring at Gettysburg to put down the unrest.
It's a dramatic and disturbing episode in American history, but not a well-remembered one. Naturally, Irish-Americans prefer not to dwell on the lynching of blacks that took place, including the torching of the Colored Orphan Asylum. The guardians of American history prefer not to remember the revered Lincoln sending troops to fire on civilians protesting his unjust draft policies in New York.
Although Scorsese's rendition of the chaos is well-staged and thoroughly gripping, it ultimately feels extraneous to what this film really is: a revenge quest against a comic-book villain.
While the city goes down in flames and soldiers march on the rioters, Scorsese's two antagonistic thugs have their final showdown. But what is basically a fight between two goons--one Protestant, the other Catholic--just doesn't resonate. Not when there's a war over black slavery going on.
Scorsese may have intended this personal confrontation to be a synecdoche for the convulsive birth of a new, multicultural nation. But the fictitious rivalry that serves as the centerpiece of this film is flagrantly irrelevant to the greater struggle that was consuming the land.
That struggle doesn't seem to interest Scorsese all that much. Gangs boasts only one black character, a buddy of Amsterdam's, who has no purpose other than to inoculate the white hero from the widespread racism of his compatriots. When the black man gets called "nigger" by another Irishman, Amsterdam comes to his defense, feet and fists flying.
Although the film ends with the draft riots, that episode seems peripheral to the film's stated interest in the Irish struggle for acceptance among the nativist whites who looked at them as barely better than blacks. The real struggle was the black struggle, and it's one that continues to this day.
Gangs of New York is crammed with frequently fascinating details of a bygone New York, and it contains a couple of stellar set pieces. The best one shows the progress of Irish youngsters, from enlisting in the Army to returning home in pine boxes. But Scorsese's new film has little of the transporting spectacle of the great films of Visconti, Pasolini or Bertolucci. What could have been a gripping, Balzac-like foray into the race and class struggles of Civil War-era America instead remains defiantly earthbound, making far too many concessions to the over-caffeinated comic-book sensibility that currently rules Hollywood.
The Two Towers
As it happens, there's another three-hour medievalist epic opening this week. It's called The Two Towers, and it's quite good, both as an epic action film and as a thoughtful literary adaptation. Unlike Gangs of New York, which races from one violent spectacle to the next, director Peter Jackson's film doles out the mind-blowing set pieces in deliberate measure, devoting considerable time to exploring the interior lives of the film's characters. In doing so, Jackson creates a richness of detail and history that does justice to his source, and winds up with a far better film than Gangs of New York.
Making the entirely sensible assumption that audiences will have seen the first film, this installment picks up from the ending of The Fellowship of the Ring, when the stout-hearted crew suffered the brave and redemptive death of Boromir and the devastating sight of the wizard Gandalf plunging into the fiery pit of Khazad-dûm.
Further compounding the misery, the two comic hobbits, Merry and Pip, have been taken prisoner by the horrid Orcs. Meanwhile, the Ring remains in the care of Frodo and Sam, who are continuing alone to Mordor in their quest to destroy the damned thing. Left behind is a skeleton crew of battlers: the future king Aragorn, the sharp-shooting elf Legolas and the stout-hearted dwarf Gimli.
What follows is quite unusual for a movie: These three narrative threads never converge. Instead, the film crosscuts between subplots at long intervals.
Much of Two Towers is concerned with the movements of Aragorn's crew, who decide to search for Merry and Pip. Eventually, they join forces with the Rohan culture, an embattled group of humans whose king is under the spell of the dread Saruman (Christopher Lee). Aragorn, the rightful heir to the Gondor throne (and underplayed, as before, by the calm, beatifically handsome Viggo Mortensen), has a brief flirtation with a charismatic Rohan princess, but remembers his pact with Erwan, the elf he left behind in the first movie.
Meanwhile, Merry and Pip find refuge in an enchanted forest filled with trees that walk and talk. The spectacle of these tree-warriors making a military advance late in the film recalls Shakespeare's Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane, only one of the film's many offhand, classical allusions.
The film's third narrative strand follows the travails of hobbits Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin), lost in the wilderness and blundering their way toward Mordor. They're eventually accompanied by Gollum, a treacherous and pathetic cave dweller who bears considerable resemblance to Steve Buscemi. Aside from the sinister behavior of Gollum, the chief drama in this subplot is that Frodo is beginning to buckle under the pressure of carrying the One Ring.
In the biggest character revelation of this installment, Frodo's partner Sam emerges as something of a better half, in more ways than one. Acting as Frodo's conscience and increasingly wise advisor, he becomes a hero in his own right. At the film's end, Astin's Sam delivers a stirring, Kipling-esque speech to bolster Frodo's morale. Though it's a classic bit of imperial British guff, Astin caps the best performance in the film with it.
One doesn't need an advanced degree in the history of Middle Earth with a minor in Elvish liturgical tradition to have an appreciation for this leisurely, intelligent epic. The film takes its time developing the complex relationships, and the characters are clearly animated by centuries of Middle Earth history. One of the many pleasures of The Two Towers is how it endlessly references thousands of years of human culture and legends. And of course, the film offers visceral movie pleasures, topped off by the epic siege of Helm's Deep, the Rohan stronghold. This battle is a spectacular accomplishment, and Jackson's special effects, here and elsewhere, feel completely organic to a story that is fundamentally character-driven.
If The Two Towers doesn't have a satisfying completeness in and of itself, it's only because we know that history, real or imagined, doesn't always lend itself to tidy conclusions. After all, this is the long backstretch of an epic trilogy, and we have every reason to believe that the various narrative horses will re-converge at the finish, when the King returns next year, at a multiplex near you.