Despite 10 Oscar nominations and a great deal of critical acclaim at the time of release, time hasn’t been as kind to Gangs of New York as you’d expect. Upon release it was remarked as Martin Scorsese’s return to form after the rather wayward Kundun and Bringing Out The Dead. Now those films are seen as a trio with Gangs and it’s 2004’s The Aviator which apparently signaled a director back to his best. Unfair, I say.
The film was marred with both pre and post-production issues. Producers Harvey and Bob Weinstein argued with Scorsese multiple times about the length of this long-gestating passion piece (Scorsese was musing it in the 1980s). The director wanted a 3 hour+ American epic whereas the brothers wanted a more streamlined audience-friendly experience and so even though the film’s post-production was almost complete in September 2001, Gangs was delayed for almost a year and pickups were shot over a year later.
So, what to make of the film that we were given? It’s a significantly flawed masterpiece. But for a few changes it could well stand up next to Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and Goodfellas. It’s certainly more audacious and more interesting than the much-heralded The Departed.
One of the films main problems is the casting of Cameron Diaz who is hopelessly out of her depth as Jenny Everdeane, an Irish-born pickpocket who has a history with villain Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) but falls for protagonist Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio). She succeeds in not only delivering the worst accent but also being the least interesting character. It’s because of her (and DiCaprio; whose been much better than this) we don’t really care for their love story and we’re counting down the seconds for the iconic Bill the Butcher to be back on screen.
The supporting cast is uniformly superb. Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly and especially Jim Broadbent, playing the controversial politician William Tweed, do their best to spice up the screen when faced with the chronically dull DiCaprio and Diaz but we still yearn for the magnetic Day-Lewis who was robbed of an Academy Award (no surprises there).
Final Verdict: Gangs of New York plays fast-and-loose with history and may suffer from being anti-climactic (especially for such a long film) but still you just can’t help but feel there’s a great film in here somewhere, only the pieces jut don’t quite fit as perfectly as you’d hope.