Gangs of New York (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #35

America was born in the streets

Country: USA & Italy
Language: English
Runtime: 168 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 20th December 2002
UK Release: 9th January 2003
First Seen: cinema, 2003

Stars
Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, The Revenant)
Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot, Lincoln)
Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary, My Sister’s Keeper)
Jim Broadbent (Moulin Rouge!, Another Year)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Kingdom of Heaven)

Director
Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas, The Departed)

Screenwriters
Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence, Silence)
Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo)
Kenneth Lonergan (The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, Margaret)

Story by
Jay Cocks (Strange Days, De-Lovely)

Inspired by
The Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld, a non-fiction book written in 1927 by Herbert Asbury.

The Story
New York City, 1846: after his father is murdered in a fight by fellow gang leader Bill ‘the Butcher’, young Amsterdam Vallon is dumped in an orphanage. Sixteen years later, he returns to the Five Points district. With revenge in mind, he tries to establish himself with the ruling gang and get close to their leader — Bill.

Our Hero
In the first of his five (to date) collaborations with Scorsese (or six if you count that advertising short they were paid an insane amount for), Leonardo DiCaprio is Amsterdam Vallon, son of a murdered gang leader who, decades later, plots his revenge. His nemesis is a cunning so-and-so, however…

Our Villain
Although he’s a ruthless killer, and the unquestionable villain from the outset, Daniel Day-Lewis manages to render Bill a perversely charming creation, who unavoidably captivates your attention whenever he’s on screen.

Best Supporting Character
Priest Vallon, Amsterdam’s father, only appears in the opening sequence, but his influence and death hangs over the rest of the movie. That’s why you need an actor of Liam Neeson’s calibre for the part, and of course such casting pays off.

Memorable Quote
“I’m 47. 47 years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? All these years? Fear. The spectacle of fearsome acts. Somebody steals from me, I cut off his hands. He offends me, I cut out his tongue. He rises against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, raise it high up so all on the streets can see. That’s what preserves the order of things. Fear.” — Bill

Memorable Scene
Scorsese captures an entire lifecycle in New York’s Five Points within a single tracking shot, which begins with immigrants arriving fresh off the boat and ends with coffins lined up on the quay.

Memorable Music
I have mixed feelings about U2 (because, y’know, Bono), but the theme they crafted for GangsThe Hands That Built America — is a pretty good track, and sits very appropriately at the end of the movie. It was Oscar-nominated, but lost to Eminem’s Lose Yourself from 8 Mile.

Letting the Side Down
Scorsese tried to make Gangs of New York for ages. At one point, he wanted Meryl Streep for the lead female role. He ended up with Cameron Diaz. Say no more, eh.

Making of
Unable to film in New York, which no longer looked like it did back in the mid-1800s, the production was mounted on a large set at Rome’s Cinecittà Studio. According to Wikipedia, production designer Dante Ferretti constructed “over a mile of mid-nineteenth century buildings, consisting of a five-block area of Lower Manhattan, including the Five Points slum, a section of the East River waterfront and two full-sized sailing ships, a thirty-building stretch of lower Broadway, a patrician mansion, and replicas of Tammany Hall, a church, a saloon, a Chinese theater, and a gambling casino.” Now that is a set!

Awards
10 Oscar nominations (Picture, Director, Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Film Editing, Sound, Original Song)
1 BAFTA (Actor (Daniel Day-Lewis))
11 BAFTA nominations (Film, Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Music, Production Design, Costume Design, Editing, Sound, Visual Effects, Make Up/Hair)
2 World Stunt Award nominations (Best Fight (the opening), Best Stunt Coordinator and/or 2nd Unit Director)
1 Teen Choice Award nomination (Choice Movie Liplock)

What the Critics Said
“The ambition is immense. This is Scorsese’s version of D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate and there are echoes of Kurosawa, Eisenstein and Visconti, as well as the nod to Welles […] As with Heaven’s Gate, judgment on this film must await Scorsese’s longer version. Nevertheless, this remains an astonishing achievement, a film with a passionate sense of life, by one of the greatest filmmakers at work today.” — Philip French, The Observer

Score: 75%

What the Public Say
“This movie, even if it ended with Amsterdam’s degradation rather than his triumph, would be fabulous, probably only inferior to Raging Bull and Goodfellas among Scorsese’s oeuvre. The problem is that the movie is nearly three hours long, and that the movie continues after Amsterdam’s maiming. There is a marvelous story to be told about American tyranny, about the immigrant experience, about just how firmly entrenched the powerful are. Do you choose bellicose racism as Bill does, or do you throw your lot in with benevolent corruption as Tweed does? It hardly seems to matter; you will be expunged and forgotten in the slop and grime of the Five Points all the same while someone else wears a tall hat and eats well.” — speakerformediocrities, Seeing Things Secondhand

Verdict

Gangs of New York ended up with a bit of a mixed reception when it finally came out in 2002, which is only to be expected after Scorsese had been intending to make it for over 20 years, and the version he had shot was stuck in editing for a year (considering all the Director’s Cuts we get nowadays, why have we never had Scorsese’s original 48-minutes-longer cut?) It’s undoubtedly a compromised film, then, but one that retains a rich atmosphere, engaging performances (even if it suffers from two of the leads, DiCaprio and Diaz, being two of the least accomplished), and an impressive sense of scale. It may have a relatively simplistic revenge-tale throughline, but class swirls around it.

#36 will be… 攻殻機動隊.

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8 thoughts on “Gangs of New York (2002)

    • I’m glad I’m not alone — when I was looking for quotes for the critics & public sections, everyone seemed to be pretty down on it. I might’ve given it 5 stars were it not for that (I haven’t actually watched it for years, so I was a little swayed by what I was reading!)

      Like

  1. “I have mixed feelings about U2 (because, y’know, Bono)” – HA! based on that remark, I’ve got your back (forever).

    Great review btw. I think this is a very entertaining movie but I do find it a little silly in places (especially for a Scorsese movie).

    Liked by 1 person

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