DVD - Gangs of New York
You have to feel some sympathy for Martin Scorcese. Having sent audiences around the world into raptures with zeitgeist-defining films such as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, you'd expect for the powers that be (earthly or otherwise) to cut him some slack when it comes to making projects that are close to his heart. A devout Catholic, his phenomenal, loving adaptation of Nikos Kazantakis' 'Last Temptation Of Christ' showed Jesus Christ as a tortured man, plagued with the indecisiveness of humanity coupled with his acceptance of his place as the saviour of mankind. Marty's reward? An accusation of blasphemy from Christians worldwide, distraught by the fact that the directors view of the Son of God was somehow different from their own.
'Gangs of New York' had been on Scorcese's radar since 1975, when he first read Herbert Asbury's novel, detailing the painful birth that the United States had experienced. Corrupt policemen, even more corrupt politicians stood shoulder to shoulder with immigrant street gangs of all nationalities, vying for control of New York City. An undercurrent of rabid nationalism, coupled with the foreboding threat of a military draft system to help fight America's own civil war propelled the city towards a violent and bloody breaking point from which New York would rise to become the city it is today. To wrap such a subtext up in what ostensibly appears to be simple revenge story takes a storyteller of immense skills and dexterity. It's no wonder Marty didn't attempt it until so much later in his career. And then, just as his luck would have it, 9/11 occurred and the US was filled with such a sense of national pride that there was absolutely no chance of a film showing grubby underside of American history had a chance in hell of winning any Oscars. Well, I guess there always a lifetime achievement award to look forward to, eh, Marty?
Leonardo Di Caprio stars as Amsterdam Vallon, a second generation immigrant whose father was the leader of one of the 'Gangs' that gives the movie it's title: The Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish descent. Liam Neeson plays Amsterdam's father, 'Priest' Vallon, in one of the movie's most inspired moves. Barely more than a cameo, Neeson infuses 'Priest' with the dignity and steely determination that identifies most of his roles over the years. His goal is to make America, and New York in particular, a city that welcomes immigrants, a place where newcomers can prosper. At the other end of the spectrum, Vallon's polar opposite is 'Butcher' Bill Cuttings, who leads the 'Natives' - White, protestants who can probably trace their family line back to a single particular pilgrim father. The opening battle between the two gangs,as violent as any scene from 'Braveheart' or 'Saving Private Ryan', sees the Dead Rabbits defeated and 'Priest' Vallon falling to the hand (and knife) of the Butcher From here, the story leaps forward sixteen years and we meet Amsterdam once again, now as a young man, returning to New York to take his revenge by infiltrating the native's gang.
To call this film a labour of love for the director is to put it mildly. When old cohort Robert De Niro turned down the part of Butcher Bill, Scorcese didn't go for an easy option - instead coaxing the notoriously reclusive Daniel Day-Lewis out of a self imposed exile to turn in a performance that resulted in an Oscar nomination. For my money, Day-Lewis' turn is one of the weaker examples throughout the leads, sometimes straying too far into a sub-De Niro parody for my liking but, on the whole, he has a ball with the character revelling in the many subtleties of such a complicated man. Check out his 'I never had a son' speech to Amsterdam and see a true master strip away the layers of complexity to bare a seemingly heartless man's tortured soul. DiCaprio is as good as ever - sometimes people find it hard to see beyond his 'pretty-boy' image, but the fact is that he is one of the finest young actors in the world and Amsterdam turns from a confused young man into an instrument of rage in his capable hands. Cameron Diaz is as dependable as ever in her underwritten role as a stock-in-trade 'tart with a heart', but the real joy among the acting can be found in the supporting roles. Jim Broadbent and John C. Reilly in particular stand out as a corrupt politician and an old cronie of Vallon's father who has since become a corrupt policeman and turned his back on his own people.
But the real star here is the set design. Painstakingly constructed in all the glory, George Lucas famously remarked on a set visit 'You know, Marty. You could have done all this with computers', spectacularly missing the point. The buildings and sets become a character all of their own. The costumes too are alive with colour and character - you can practically smell the stench of the street gangs as they open battle amongst themselves. Fittingly, the costume and set design are giving ample coverage on the second disc of the package with three features dedicated to them, one of which even allows the vewer to take a virtual 'tour' of the set, allowing you to truly appreciate the awesome scope of the undertaking. Elsewhere on the extras front we get what amounts to an incredibly detailed history lesson about New York City at that moment in history. This is particularly true of Scorcese's feature length commentary which relies very heavily on detailing historical accuracies within the movie and suffers somewhat for not focussing more on the moviemaking process itself.
All in all, though, it's a fitting DVD set for a an astonishing film. Shame on the Academy for not awarding any oscars - make it up to Marty by getting everyone you know who loves movies to buy a copy of the DVD.
Film - 9/10