Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:07 pm 
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Too much ugliness. And by the way, what's the point?

Let's begin with the casting. It's not clear to me why some people seem to like Daniel Day-Lewis's performance in "Gangs of New York" so very much. ("He IS the film," an enthusiastic viewer said to his companion as I walked out.) It's a caricature, if a sly one, and the New York accent is the same artificial drawl he did somewhere else. The long speech he does draped in a flag brings yawns. Day-Lewis has a reputation as a risk taker; but is Bill the Butcher a risk -- or merely a burden dutifully shouldered? Perhaps what he needs on his résumé are a few more roles as contemporary Englishmen. The ultimate stretch for some actors is to play who they actually are.

Bill the Butcher's youthful Irish enemy, Amsterdam Vallon, is permanently angry, hostile, waiting for revenge. This isn't an ideal role for Leonardo Di Caprio, a young man full of joie de vivre who's excelled as wild and exuberant characters. How can the explosive retarded boy of "Gilbert Grape," the strutting bean pole of "Total Eclipse," the romantic and defiant teenager of "Romeo" and "Titanic," or the spoiled adventurer of "The Beach" seem right as this beefy young gangster, who, however arresting at times, is always dour and doomed? Leo as a gangster might have worked. Leo could be a charming outlaw - and he is soon to be one in Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." But it doesn't work here. And the superfluous voiceover he speaks makes things worse. Di Caprio's unimpressive voice has always been his Achilles heel.

Cameron Diaz, on the other hand, does do very well indeed in what remains a conventional movie role: Jenny Everdeane, the colorful wench full of feistiness but ultimately pushed aside when the heroes duke it out to the death. It's not bad casting; it's bad writing.

Beyond these three who stand in the foreground, most of the other characters fade quickly from memory. The colorful personalities suggested by the gangs' wild names aren't brought to individualized life. And since character is all this movie has, that's fatal.

Scorsese seems to have no sense of structure in "Gangs of New York." The movie goes nowhere. "The world turns," Leo says, in the voiceover's most ironic line, "and sometimes we don't even notice it." The world of "Gangs" turns, all right, and, going nowhere we'd be likely to notice, comes back to another violent cowboy movie showdown like the opening one - which was actually more arresting, if only because we were fresher then. In the end, what has it all been for? The revenge is blunted by the affection Bill and Amsterdam develop for each other. Di Caprio's performance hasn't the depth to convey the complex conflicts he would feel in a final confrontation under these circumstances. There's no catharsis, and no understanding.

Somewhere the point of it all was lost. Cinecittà, where "Gangs of New York" was shot, is pretty far from old New York. Working in an Italian film studio seems to have led Scorsese away from any New York into the world of spaghetti westerns. The director loves the city he grew up in. Can he convey that affection, or recreate his city's origins, by dramatizing a colorful but somewhat questionably accurate book about nineteenth century gangs? Is an Italian American a suitable champion of the Irish immigrants?

Though the surface details of dress and accoutrements may seem realistic (we know how well they were done in "Age of Innocence" for another much more urbane old New York), what good is superficial accuracy when the whole series of collective actions seems pointless, focused only on racism and the rejection of it -- and social and political events, and underlying economic motives, have been disregarded altogether or distorted beyond accuracy or point? This movie bit off more than it could chew, and the result is a big regurgitated mess.

But what is most troubling about "Gangs" is its relentless gore. When has one seen so much blood pouring down bodies and flowing in the streets, so many limbs lopped off, guts cut out, knives thrown; so much menace of maiming and dismemberment and torture? The violence is mind boggling and sickening. Ving Rhames' famous threat in "Pulp Fiction," "I'm gonna get medieval on your ass," seems positively effete by comparison. This is a movie to be slogged through. It's deadening and disheartening.

There is one sequence - from another, pleasanter, better film - when Di Caprio finds he's been pick pocketed by Cameron Diaz and follows her on a streetcar and thence to a rich house where she enters costumed as a maid, steals things, comes out, and is confronted by him, threatening, close enough to kiss. This one moment is worth the rest.

"Gangs of New York" is numbing, but not unwatchable. Martin Scorsese couldn't produce a film that wasn't worth getting through. But this is a project that went on too long, and went wrong, and it shows.

December 20, 2002

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