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It would be decades before the gangs
of New York would realize that handlebar
mustaches and silly lookin' hats didn't
accentuate their tough guy persona.

Gangs of New York
Review written by: Alex Sandell

When you ask any professional critic who knows anything about movies who the creator of the modern gangster film is, you'll be told, unequivocally, "Martin Scorsese." As a matter of fact, if you asked that question of anyone, professional critic or not, most would name Scorsese.  The only human on this planet that may prevent the answer from becoming unanimous would be Scorsese's greatest quality imitator, Quentin Tarantino, who would most likely answer by naming himself.  Tarantino has done an excellent job at continuing the love-hate affair movie audiences have with organized crime that was renewed in the seventies by Scorsese, allowing Martin himself the freedom to look at the genre in an entirely different light. 

For 25 years the filmmaker wanted to go back to the roots of organized crime, to revel in its origins and show us where all of this forward-looking hoodlum havoc he had been directing was born.  Thanks to a 90 million dollar, "R" rated, bloody-as-hell, Christmas release of a gamble from Miramax, Scorsese has finally gotten the chance to realize his dream and put it up on the screen for the world to see.  It was well worth the quarter-century wait.  With a passion only matched by James Cameron's recreation of the Titanic, in his movie of the same name, Scorsese has accurately brought to life New York of yesteryear in, Gangs of New York

Gangs of New York isn't a Merchant-Ivory hoodwinked history piece vividly recalling all that was beautiful in a bygone era, while selectively forgetting the ugliness of the era in question.  This is an 1846 that is seemingly crawling with disease and filth to a degree where you'll feel like you need an intermission to wash off some of the virtual nastiness that appears to be seeping its way off of the screen and into your hot buttered popcorn. 

The axiom of, "the good old days" is further eroded with the grubby costumes that the actors wear, the busted yellow teeth that they brandish, and the muddy streets that they choose to fight in; oftentimes to a grisly death that would make an ancient Roman gladiator proud.  This isn't a pretty picture.  This picture isn't even pretty enough for me to use my, "beautiful in its ugliness" line that I'm so fond of throwing into one critique after another.

Scorsese's grimy city of New York is the most developed character of 2002.  If you could give a location, "Best Actor," the New York City portrayed in, Gangs of New York would take home the award.  As it stands, either Leonardo DiCaprio or Daniel Day-Lewis will have to do the honors (unless Jack takes it for his wonderful performance in, About Schmidt). 

Leonardo plays the character of Amsterdam Vallon, a man who devotes his life to seeking vengeance for his father's murder at the hands of Day-Lewis's character, William 'Bill the Butcher' Cutting.  DiCaprio's plays his part with such an effective fervor, you can feel the hatred hissing its way out of him with his every word.  Comparing Leo's performance in Gangs with the one he gave in Catch Me if you Can shows that DiCaprio is one of the most versatile actors we have, and one whose career will far outlive the "teen idol" status he attained with Titanic and Romeo + Juliet

On the other hand, Daniel Day-Lewis proved his versatility as an actor when DiCaprio was still only a child, but hasn't done a film since 1997's, The Boxer.  Was his semi-retirement for a reason?  Does he still have the goods as an actor?  I'm pleased to answer the question with a resounding, "yes."  This is Daniel's tourdeforce performance; the one he'll be forever remembered for.  The man is so deliciously wicked as Bill the Butcher, the Academy may not have the nerve to deny him the trophy for Best Actor. 

The two lead performances given by the film's stars charge the entire picture, and help in creating characters that are well-developed and believable.  So much time is spent developing these oddly paired adversaries that all of the other talent in the film, even exceptional actors such as Jim Broadbent and John C. Reilly, become mere extras in this epic tale of revenge and retribution between two men who don't give up and won't give in.

One can't help but notice that Gangs of New York is Shakespearean in nature.  The epic scope that swept through Shakespeare's work was often deceptive, as he was usually telling small stories about one or two characters that just happened to be surrounded by earthshaking events.  Some people have had a problem with the lack of character development in the supporting actors in this film, but it is odd that I have never heard the very same people whining about Hamlet getting all of the good lines, or Romeo and Juliet stealing the show and relegating everyone else down to simple background players.         

Gangs of New York is the story of Amsterdam Vallon and Bill the Butcher.  It's not a story about Jennie Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), or even, Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent).  Each of these actors are playing characters that are as necessary to the picture as Claudius and Polonius were to Hamlet, or as Benvolio and Petruchio were to Romeo and Juliet.  They do need to be there, but they don't need to be developed any further than is necessary to enhance the leading characters' story.

And what a story this is.  Screenwriter Jay Cocks, director Martin Scorsese, and everyone else involved with this massive collaboration have created something grand and glorious.  Something all-encompassing and absolutely believable in its coarseness.

Every minute of Gangs of New York will etch itself into your memory; from the brutal opening in the snow-swept city to the World Trade Center's appearance in the melancholy finale.  This string of violence is unsettling, and hopefully it will have us all rethinking the way that we live. 

From Taxi Driver to Raging Bull to The Last Temptation of Christ, Martin Scorsese has proven that he doesn't shy away from controversy, and with Gangs of New York, his riskiest pic yet, his refusal to flinch has created a classic that may stir up America's long-dead conscience.  It isn't often that a film comes along powerful enough to cause a collective of people to take a long, hard look in the mirror, and decide that it may be time to put their petty prejudices and vendettas back on the shelf. 

This is Scorsese's finest work, and one of the best films of 2002.  You'll leave the theater feeling like you just spent a couple of decades in a New York even your great-grandparents were too young to step foot in.  Once you come back to the present, you'll realize that big-budget Hollywood just did something right for a change, and maybe not every great film has to be stuck in an art-house somewhere in the middle of Los Angeles or New York.  Sure would save on the gas money, wouldn't it?

On a scale of 1-10?

9

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MOVIE POSTERS

Catch Me If You Can

Raging Bull - Film Review

Casino

Goodfellas

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Text (Copyright) 2002 Alex Sandell [All Rights Reserved].

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