The film begins with an epic, bloody battle, fought entirely without explosives or firearms, between two factions whose motives are not elaborately explained. We gather some are “natives” while others are interlopers; there is also mention of Catholicism versus Protestantism.
Whatever the cause, the men — and women, too, and there are children nearby — struggle ferociously against each other, killing their enemies by any means possible, disfiguring them when finished and keeping trophies. The atrocities end — and then comes the punch line. Words on the screen inform us that this barbary did not occur in medieval times, or in an undeveloped nation, or in some distant post-apocalyptic future. It was in New York City, in 1846.
Thus begins Martin Scorsese’s latest bloodbath “Gangs of New York,” an epic-length film of minuscule proportions that purports to be a tribute to the brutal infancy of the world’s greatest city, but which is ultimately just a revenge tale — and one hardly deserving of 160 minutes of screen time.
Something in the moviegoer’s psyche suggests that when a movie is this long, it is more likely to be a cinematic triumph than, say, a 90-minute flick. This may often be the case — a longer running time frequently gives actors more moments to build their characters and directors more room to develop themes — but it is not a hard, fast rule.
“Gangs of New York” perfectly exemplifies the truism that bigger is not necessarily better. Technically, it’s a marvelous film, with cinematography, editing, production design and costumes all ranking among the best of the year. It flawlessly captures the chaos, conflict and filth of 19th-century New York down to the very details.
Yet its story suffers. It is the tale of Amsterdam Vallon (Leondardo DiCaprio), whose father was killed in that opening battle by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Sixteen years later, Amsterdam has returned to the Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan to find that everyone works for Bill, and that relations between native-born New Yorkers like Bill and Irish immigrants like Amsterdam have improved only slightly. Bill, not recognizing the lad whose father he killed years ago, is happy to put Amsterdam into his employ, overlooking his Irishness as long as he can do the boss’ bidding.
It will not surprise you to learn that Amsterdam has revenge in mind for Bill, nor that a woman (Cameron Diaz) is added to the mix to make things more complicated.
What is unusual is that such a pedestrian plot is dragged out over 2 1/2 hours. DiCaprio’s performance as Amsterdam — one of the actor’s least mature to date — rarely offers any compelling reason for us to keep watching.
Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, is colorful and vivid as the sadistic Bill the Butcher. He electrifies the screen nearly every time he appears on it, consistently outshining his callow co-star. His story, I suspect, would have been far more interesting.
The film has several scenes of gruesomeness, some warranted and some gratuitous. Their purpose, as a whole, seems to be establishing what a ruthless time this was in American history, and I respect that notion. Still, if watching a movie is going to be an ordeal, there ought to be a better payoff — greater emotions stirred, more intriguing stories told, higher heights reached to counteract the gory depths. “Gangs of New York” offers technical proficiency and narrative mediocrity.
B- (2 hrs., 40 min.; )