Arriving a year late and saddled with abundant backstory, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is finally slouching into Bethlehem, and—trimmed from some unknown length to a mere 165 minutes—a rough beast it is. Scorsese’s tale of mid-19th-century New York City is an anachronizing anachronism—a personal epic, proudly out of season.
The opening sequence raises the street brawl to near-cosmic heights. Following the bizarrely ecclesiastical Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and his young son, the immigrant Irish “Dead Rabbits” gang spills from its catacombs into the snowy quiet of Lower Manhattan’s Five Points district for a giant face-off with a horde of anti-immigrant nativists led by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Their weapons are sabers, razors, meat cleavers, shillelaghs, and teeth filed to a vampire’s point; Scorsese’s are dollies and cranes. The battle varies between a child’s point of view and something more . . . elevated. In one overhead, the carnage suggests a bloody Brueghel canvas with two dozen individuated cruelties going on at once. As if on cue, the mayhem ends when Bill dispatches Priest to a better world and Scorsese cuts to an ascending aerial view of New York City A.D. 1846.
Shot largely in Rome’s capacious Cinecittá studio, Gangs of New York is a hothouse historical fantasy inspired by the already fantastic demimonde chronicles published in 1928 by newsman Herbert Asbury. It’s a movie that Scorsese has wanted to make for 30 years, and one can see why. The teeming tenement drama, the awesome neighborhood capos, the arcane codes of street honor, the tribal antipathies, the Catholic pageantry, even the background opposition to an unpopular war suggest the filmmaker’s lived history in some alternative universe. Not surprisingly, that universe echoes with the wide-screen, Technicolor genres of Scorsese’s boyhood: spectacles of antiquity, town-building westerns, brawling pirate swashbucklers.
Gangs of New York cost well over $100 million, and the money is up there for the gawking. Illuminated by the orange flames of hell, the vast New York City set looks great. The least engaging aspect of the movie is its script—which passed through the hands of three separate writers and perhaps even producer Harvey Weinstein. Jumping ahead 16 years to the period of the Civil War, Gangs picks up on Priest’s son, sent to an orphanage, grown up to be Leonardo DiCaprio and idiotically known as Amsterdam. En route to the old neighborhood, Amsterdam tosses his graduation Bible into the East River—he’s returned to the city of his birth to wreak vengeance on the dread Bill.
Was there ever a more lowdown roistering town? Five Points is the land of nonstop thud and crash, the kingdom of arson and looting, the domain of fisticuffs—not to mention black clog dancers and strolling Irish string bands. Gangs of New York reads the present back into history and reimagines the past to suit itself. As the boats on the East River disgorge a steady stream of coffins, the city’s denizens revel in the ethnic insistence that seems every New Yorker’s birthright. Brothels feature live Chinese opera; Uncle Tom’s Cabin is performed at a local settlement house, mainly so the actor suspended from the ceiling as Abraham Lincoln can be pelted with vegetables. When not parading for or against the Civil War and attending torch-lit political rallies or public hangings, the locals gather to stone Irish immigrants as they arrive (and are instantly registered to vote).
New York is ruled by the Tammany Hall fixer “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who is himself run by Bill the Butcher, the real Satanic Majesty of this infernal realm. Twirling his fearsome mustache and crowned with a skyscraping stovepipe hat, Day-Lewis is part goodfella, part Sweeney Todd, and total Know Nothing—a belligerent nativist who hates the union. With apposite Oedipal blindness, he adopts young Amsterdam of mysterious provenance, all the while insisting on his respect for Priest Vallon: “The only man I ever killed worth remembering.” Yeah yeah yeah. (Bill’s endless blather is all the more grating in that Day-Lewis’s New Yawk accent seems to have been derived from a close study of Columbo reruns.)
While killing time for his showdown with the Butcher, Amsterdam engages in a long dance of mutual attraction with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a lissome creature whose occupations alternate between smooth pickpocket and freelance prostitute before devolving to devoted nursemaid. Like DiCaprio, Diaz is perfectly adequate to her underwritten—yet inflated—part. (The scene in which they show each other their scars is meant to suggest some depth.) The more time spent with these young lovers, the less interesting they become—even though the Butcher can be relied upon to sharpen his knives with an eye to carving up their firm young flesh.
The movie ultimately reconcentrates its energy as the final battle between Amsterdam and Bill coincides with an upsurge in Irish political activism and the catastrophic draft riots of 1863. New York is torched; the homes of the wealthy are sacked. Not that our hero is directly involved: “The earth was shaking now—but I was about my father’s vengeance,” he tells us in voice-over. The draft riots (among other things, a four-day pogrom directed against the city’s African Americans) are to Gangs what the burning of Rome is to Quo Vadis, but given the build-up, they seem rudely truncated. Some embellishments remain: Scorsese throws in the later burning of Barnum’s Museum, thus allowing an elephant to amble across the set, and ups the explosion ante by inventing a scene where frigates shell the Five Points. He fills the streets with a sloshing river of blood, but the final confrontation—as Amsterdam and the Butcher collide in the smoky confusion of their shattered neighborhood—arrives much too soon. The riot was only getting started.
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.
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.
Speaking of double consciousness, the tender love between the hobbits Frodo and Sam is, as noted by Michael Musto two issues back, pretty much a given. But those joining the epic in medias res may be puzzled by the other meaningful looks. Is the sensitive elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) cruising hunky Aragorn? Fellowship, to be sure. Meanwhile, sociologists can parse the ethnicity in the gorgeous mosaic that is Middle Earth. The black-and-blue-faced orcs are carnivorous Cockney apes. The dwarf Gimli (digitally reduced John Rhys-Davies) sounds Scottish. The elves are Irish, but so are some of the hobbits.
Indeed, The Two Towers rounds out a week of Celtic soul-fests. The movie’s most distinctive aspect is the particular melancholy that Tolkien took, along with much else, from Irish mythology. Those fair, long-limbed elves who are sailing west and leaving Middle Earth to the humans are purest Sidhe. The same might be said of Monty Brogan and even the Dead Rabbit boys.