I n Arthur Penn's vastly underrated but nonetheless awful 1976 movie The Missouri Breaks, Marlon Brando so completely dominates the action with his ridiculous Irish brogue, his absurd clothes, his iconoclastic gunslinger swagger and his cryptic avuncularity that nobody else can get a word in edgewise. Blowing the young Jack Nicholson completely off the screen - the first and last time this ever happened - Brando rips through the film like a mid-winter gale, uprooting everything that stands before him. The only thing his hapless co-stars can do in the presence of such brute force is to batten down the hatches and wait for the hurricane to move out to sea. Civil war era beard styles.
Daniel Day-Lewis's performance in Martin Scorsese's long-awaited Gangs Of New York is cut from the same cloth. Sporting a ridiculous Noo Yawk accent, a ludicrous collection of 19th-century duds that look like classic 1970s pimp wear, a glass eye with an American eagle inside and a daunting assortment of knives, awls and meat cleavers, Day-Lewis literally prevents anyone else in the film from breathing. His over-the-top antics rank right up there with Jack Nicholson as the Joker in Batman and Alan Rickman as the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood, Prince Of Thieves, that is, it is a performance that literally must be seen to be believed. I saw the movie twice just to make sure it wasn't the cold medication I was taking.
Gangs Of New York is Scorsese's ambitious attempt to tell the largely unknown story of 19th-century Manhattan. The story runs like this: back in those days, New York was dangerous, it was dirty, it was filled with corruption and the rich people cavalierly ignored the misery of the poor.
Well, thank God that's over. As America's greatest living director sees it, four distinct sets of "gangs" competed for control of the city in this period when cutthroats roamed the streets and a man seeking a drink could wander into a saloon and never be heard of again. Well, thank God that's over too.
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The first gang consisted of working-class "natives", descendants of the city's English and Dutch founders, who deeply resented the hordes of Irish immigrants who formed the second set of gangs. These criminal enterprises, with names like the Dead Rabbits, were not yet strong enough to challenge the entrenched nativists. But their time was coming. The third "gang" comprised crooked politicians, most notably New York's legendary Boss Tweed, who controlled the civil service system, the fourth was made up of the idle rich, who paid the politicians to make sure the first two gangs didn't come uptown and steal the cutlery. In Scorsese's view, the politicians and the wealthy are scum, the immigrants coarse but noble, the natives cruel but misunderstood. If this explanation is a bit confusing, so is the movie.
In terms of factual accuracy, Gangs Of New York falls into the same general category as Braveheart, The Patriot, The Man In The Iron Mask, and that submarine film with Jon Bon Jovi: in other words, it's a joke. Scorsese gleefully mixes and matches events from different historical periods, invents incidents that never could have happened, and shamelessly finesses his way past the horrendous crimes inflicted on African-Americans by the Irish during the Civil war-era Draft Riots, when enraged Hibernian immigrants lynched hundreds of blacks. But, like Braveheart, The Patriot and that submarine movie with Jon Bon Jovi, it is a generally entertaining film. Let's not forget, Richard III takes liberties with the historical record as well.
As the movie opens, Day-Lewis, playing a charismatic psychopath called Bill the Butcher, gathers together his ragtag army of xenophobic lunatics to battle the Irish hordes in an epic brawl that calls to mind the opening scenes in Gladiator. The Irish are led by the redoubtable Priest Vallon, played with economical style by Liam Neeson. Alas, Neeson is soon dispatched from the film, slain by his mortal rival, leaving the same dramatic void as he did when he prematurely exited The Phantom Menace, leaving the film in the unsteady hands of Ewan McGregor. Priest's little boy Amsterdam, who witnesses his father's death, will now spend the remainder of the film getting ready to avenge the Priest, and the audience will spend the remainder of the film watching him get ready to avenge the Priest. That, and trying to figure out who dreamed up the name "Amsterdam".
This is not going to be an easy task, either for Amsterdam or for the audience, because the Priest's son is played by the passive, ovine Leonardo DiCaprio. Unlike Brad Pitt, who managed to conjure up a vague aura of menace while playing an IRA gun runner in The Devil's Own, DiCaprio is about as intimidating as a box of Weetabix. Furtive, skulking, self-effacing, just generally soft, DiCaprio is no match for the ferocious Day-Lewis. Though he does a fine job in Steven Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can, where he is cast as a callow youth, he is hopelessly out of his depth in Gangs Of New York.
He spends a great deal of time weeping, his beard looks fake even if it is real and when he throws a bowie knife it doesn't look like the impact could puncture a croissant, much less a man's skull.
All that said, Gangs Of New York is a rewarding experience because of Day-Lewis's tour de force performance. Absent from the screen since 1997, Day-Lewis completely and utterly dominates Scorsese's film in a way that only a few actors can. All that Bill the Butcher lacks is a nemesis: someone to play Wellington to his Bonaparte. Someone who seems as tough, and detached, and latently violent as he is. Personally, I think Scorsese should have given Eminem the part. But at least he didn't give it to Ben Affleck.
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