“Gangs of New York” Bites Off More of the Big Apple Than It Can Chew

Gangs of New York Gangs of New York

Every month, we at The Spool select a filmmaker to explore in greater depth — their themes, their deeper concerns, how their works chart the history of cinema and the filmmaker’s own biography. This month, we’re celebrating the release of The Irishman with a retrospective of the work of Martin Scorsese. Read the rest of our coverage here.

It’s a shame that Martin Scorsese was able to, after thirty years of trying, get Gangs of New York into production when he did.

Scorsese’s historical fiction epic set in the mid-to-late 1800s New York City is fine. Some of it is really quite good. Much like New York itself always been, the film is crowded. Crowded by ideas, by production design, by big names, by lofty goals, by lack of focus. So crowded, in fact, the movie fails to make room for drive or purpose inside itself, instead presenting half-remembered anecdotes unencumbered by narrative or structural demands.

Gangs drops us into the catacombs beneath the streets of The Five Points district of New York City in 1846 where Irish immigrant Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) prepares for war. A war not fought state to state, but between various immigrant gangs. Neeson’s Catholic Dead Rabbits and associates versus William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting’s (Daniel Day-Lewis) Protestant Natives. Day-Lewis proclaims this challenge will be fought by “the ancient laws of combat” to determine for once and for all which faction holds sway over The Five Points, and by extension the city itself.

We get glimpses of our supporting cast throughout the Irish jig-scored battle-march through the darkness, where the overarching issues with Gangs first begin to take shape. A wink and a nod from Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), Hell-Cat Maggie (Cara Seymour) sharpening her axe, a world-weary ‘Monk’ McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) dejectedly joining the fray in exchange for ten gold pieces for every new death-notch on his killin’ club, and a stoic Neeson telling his young son Amsterdam that, “the blood stays on the blade.” Glimpses of character, glimpses of a deeper story, but we are never afforded enough time with the bulk of the cast for it to matter.

These Suicide Squad-esque introductions sprawl beyond our bit players through every aspect of the film – from the historical walk-and-talks pointing out the inner workings of crime and politics reminiscent of Casino, to featuring the dozens of street gangs such as the Plug Uglies, Bowery Boys, Forty Thieves, and others with all the care and depth of a Mortal Kombat character introducing themselves before a match.

Scorsese first discovered Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld in the 1970s. Over thirty years, for one reason (money) or another (also money), Scorsese was never quite able to get all the pieces in place until he secured both Leonardo DiCaprio and funding in late 1999 with the assistance of sex criminal Harvey Weinstein.

Scorsese’s team traveled to Rome to rebuild a historically accurate Paradise Square in all its former squalor and glory. While the sets and costumes are impressive and glorious, with a painstaking attention to detail, the viewer can’t help but feel as if they’re watching something akin to the world’s most expensive Civil War-era LARP game. Everything looks right, but it feels off.

There is very little depth to the backdrop of superficial brilliance. Yes, Day-Lewis is having the time of his life here, but his masterclass in 19th-century shit-talking is undercut by a filmmaker who liked an idea without really knowing what to do with it. The wonderful prose and masterful performances belie the emptiness behind the words and the thinness of the conflict. Knowing that at one point in time Robert De Niro was considered for Bill, one can’t help but wonder if Day-Lewis is passing off a stunning impression of a contemporary disguised as character work.

Glimpses of character, glimpses of a deeper story, but we are never afforded enough time with the bulk of the cast for it to matter.

Suffering through the now grown Amsterdam (DiCaprio) and pickpocket Jenny Everdeane’s (Cameron Diaz) bafflingly accented arguments-turned-sweet nothings is an arduous task. Abandoning the frenetic pace of the opening bloodbath and slice-of-life tales of the city, the last two hours of the film settle in on a trite, well-worn love triangle mixed with surrogate daddy issues, beset on all sides by toxic masculinity. 

Diaz does the best she can with a director famously uninterested in female perspectives, but she is not given room to move beyond batting her eyes and the defense of her personal choices to the men who question them. DiCaprio, drowning in voice over, often looks as if he’s taken a fresh bite of lemon between takes, squinting his way from scene to scene.

Gangs’ final product presents itself not as a rich, character-driven narrative ruminating on family, revenge, culture, or what it means to be an American, nor as a Forrest Gump-style retelling of history through the eyes of Irish immigrants, but rather sits as a celluloid Buzzfeed listicle of Neat & Terrible Things White People Did and Where They Did Them in 1800s NYC. To be fair, that’s mostly how Asbury’s book reads, but he had the luxury of not needing a through-line.

It’s a shame Scorsese got the funding when he did because there is a fantastic prestige drama similar to Deadwood buried in Gangs that could have touched on everything that drew Scorsese to the book in the first place and tell a compelling story. A better story may lie in the fabled production print which clocked in at almost four hours, dropping the bulk of mostly-clumsy voice over in favor of visual storytelling. Only after many discussions with sex criminal Harvey Weinstein was the run time cut down to a more marketable 161 minutes.

In an HBO limited series, each disparate element would have time to breathe. Maybe then would the threat of the coming draft rumble throughout every facet of the narrative instead of one or two conspicuous conversations. Perhaps we would have a chance to live with each of the gangs, to understand the differences that split them into sub-factions and the similarities which bring them back together instead of watching a historically influenced version of The Warriors. There would be time to expertly weave the corruption of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and Tammany Hall through to the true horror of the Draft Riots. 

To borrow a phrase from the film, it takes some stone sand to set your story during the civil war, culminating with the Draft Riots of 1863, when you have a grand total of one speaking black man in your supporting cast. As a final set piece in this epic, the riots ultimately have less to do with a class struggle and the institutionalized racism of America, and more to do with an inconvenient dishonoring of the so-called ancient laws of combat. 

The cardinal sin of Gangs is how unfocused it feels juxtaposed against a rich tapestry of command performances, engaging set pieces, and the raging fire of history under the melting pot of New York City. It feels as though Scorsese was staring at a model of New York in a box for thirty years, and when he finally got to build it, he didn’t quite know what to do with any of the pieces.

Gangs of New York Trailer:

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