Vice City

More than anything else, Gangs recalls Sergio Leone's flawed would-be masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America. Gangs has the superior mise-en-scène but its structure is far more banal—or has it been banalized? While rumors of rewrites, reshoots, re-edits, and tantrums abound, I don't suppose anybody will ever know the full story of Scorsese's relationship with his padrone Weinstein. (Variety is reporting that Scorsese plans to do the Howard Hughes story for Weinstein, with Leonardo no less.) Still, the bit of business where Bill the Butcher suffers a fit of pique at the card table and uses a knife to pin someone's hand to the table, murmuring, "Please don't make that sound again, Harvey," seems less inside joke than cri de coeur.

Gangs of New York is a lavish folly that suffers from an odd downscale effect—it's as though, fearful of going broke, a wealthy family had sold their gracious mansion and relocated to an efficiency apartment. The same dozen characters, including Boss Tweed and Horace Greeley, are constantly running around the set bumping into each other. There's too much foreground. This movie was born to dominate the skyline, but it can't—it's overshadowed by its own aspirations.

Mean Streets: Dicaprio rallies the dead rabbits in Gangs of New York.
photo: Courtesy Miramax Films
Mean Streets: Dicaprio rallies the dead rabbits in Gangs of New York.


Gangs of New York
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan
Opens December 20

25th Hour
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by David Benioff, from his novel
Opens December 19

The Two Towers
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Stephen Sinclair & Jackson, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
New Line
Opens December 18

Unable to find a politically secure vantage point, Gangs of New York laments history's anonymous casualties: "For the rest of time it would be like no one even knew we were here." The concluding image is a stunning matte shot of smoky Lower Manhattan as seen from a Brooklyn graveyard, followed by the inevitable time-lapse dissolve to the skyline as of September 10, 2001.

Cut to Spike Lee's 25th Hour. Lee's latest in-your-face paean to ethnic vaudeville and New York lowlife opens in deepest Scorsesetown, somewhere under the FDR Drive in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Bridge, with charismatic dope dealer Montgomery Brogan (Edward Norton) and his two-ton muscle Kostya (Tony Siragusa) saving the badly wounded dog that Monty will name Doyle. Like a hepped-up boxer dancing out of his corner, Lee pummels the air with a flurry of showy set-ups—even as his characters assault the ear with nonstop trash talk. The first thing to be said about 25th Hour's terminally overwrought tough-guy baroque is that every scene is too long and many of its visual ideas defy analysis. The structure tends towards oozy, the line readings can be woozy, and the keening, obtrusive score by Lee regular Terence Blanchard is seldom less than obtrusive. But unlike He Got Game, Summer of Sam, or Clockers (which it most closely resembles), 25th Hour is held together in the vise of a powerful script.

Adapted by David Benioff from his 2000 crime novel, 25th Hour tracks the last day and night that Monty spends—mainly in the company of family, friends, and business associates—before being sent up the river to prison. Sympathetic, in part because he was set up, Norton's white working-class heroin salesman is surrounded by a small galaxy of colorful types—including his barkeep father (Brian Cox), sexy girlfriend Naturelle (Rosario Dawson), and lifelong pals, the Wall Street cowboy Frank Slattery (Barry Pepper) and guilt-ridden schoolteacher Jacob Elinsky (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Elinsky's student crush (Anna Paquin) and a gaggle of satanic Russian gangsters round out the cast. As Lee-vian as 25th Hour is, it's surprising to see how faithfully the movie hews to its source. Most of the bullshit-enriched one-on-ones come from the novel. Even the name "Naturelle" and the splenetic montage of ethnic venting (similar to a celebrated moment in Do the Right Thing) are in the original.

Although the expressionist miasma of a downtown dance club is vintage Lee, the filmmaker's main conceptual inspiration appears to be a largely pointless attempt to evoke the post-9-11 moment. (He also takes pains to emphasize the cruelty of the Rockefeller drug laws.) 25th Hour often feels like a mediocre time-waster, and yet it sticks in the mind. Norton's congenial characterization is a factor. So is the concluding fantasy, which, successfully reprising the misfired end of Clockers, provides an emotional payoff to 140 minutes of shadowboxing.

The Two Towers—an alternate title, I suppose, for 25th Hour—naturally picks up where The Fellowship of the Ring left off. With the Fellowship sundered, five separate storylines are quickly established amid much vertiginous camera swooping and tumultuous running through the windswept peaks of craggiest New Zealand. Peter Jackson's movie is one portentous happening after another—not unreasonable in that his source, J.R.R. Tolkien's trilogy, is basically the fantasyland equivalent of a world war against absolute evil.

Fans of the first movie (who are politely invited to stop reading at the semi-colon and get in line) will not be disappointed; neophytes (listen up) may find the endless mixing it up with digital hordes a bit wearisome, even if the combatants are horrific hyena-riding orcs. The much-beloved Ents—walking trees to you—have a pop surrealist panache that suggests the greening of Salvador Dalí. Not even elf ears can do much for Liv Tyler in the thankless, underwritten role of an Elvish princess in love with the valiant Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen). So far as human interest goes, the movie is stolen by a cyborg performance of the highest order: the pitiful Gollum (Andy Serkis, radically modified). A sneaky, clammy, amphibious creature with (as Faramir, brother of Boromir, unnecessarily points out) "an ill-favored look," Gollum is the soul of the movie—particularly after his consciousness begins to fissure.

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