Gangs of New York (2002)
Gangs of New York is an impressive film in many ways; chiefly visually, as it brings you back to the long gone infancy of New York City with its rivalling gangs, budding racism, and peculiar coalescence of progressing civilization and crude savagery. Filmed at a majestic custom-built studio in Rome, in which several blocks from 1860s New York were constructed, and saturated with archaic – and arguably well-researched – dialects and sociolects of English, Gangs of New York does indeed create a separate universe for itself; one that should have boded for a scintillating adventure about the history of the Big Apple.
But although Scorsese definitely put effort into making an as comprehensive and detailed picture as possible, his film is also highly and strangely stylized – both in its staged and overdone set-pieces (such as the opening scene) and in characterizations (such as the Day-Lewis character). These are elements which Scorsese elevates and constantly puts to the front, but which ultimately don't have the purpose or weight to deserve such showboating. Take Daniel Day-Lewis' character, for instance – the film's antagonist and most flashy character. His performance has been applauded as the highlight of the film, but in my opinion it is caricatured and often bordering on counterproductive. Day-Lewis has abundances of captivating force and authority – you can't help but look at him – but he also puts too much into his performance, making his Butcher seem otherworldly instead of tangible. Like his There Will Be Blood character a few years later, he doesn't seem like a man that could have really lived.
Our protagonist Amsterdam Vallon, played with usual intensity by Leonardo DiCaprio, does so, on the other hand. And it's through his endeavours that the film is able to draw us in with a bit of heart – in addition to the constant amazement Scorsese generates. His relationship with a sweet and surprisingly effective Cameron Diaz also threatens to become very effective, had it only been given a little more room to develop. When push comes to shove, however, what holds Gangs of New York back is the overall quality of the story. The film presents some rivalry and conflicts, magnifying them as best it can, and then adds a slight love story, a personal vendetta, and a grand finale. But for all the film's initial peculiarities, the impression it leaves in the end is one of standardized structure and run-of-the-mill narrative build-up. Gangs of New York is an ordinary story concealed in an extraordinary shell.