"Bloody and bruised, but not broken"
Dir. Martin Scorsese; writ. Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan; feat. Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson (R) The version of Gangs that hits theaters (and keeps on hitting) this week provides some basis for Miramax's concerns. It is an often slow-moving story, brutal and filled with unsympathetic characters. The trouble is, most of the film's problems appear to be caused — or at the very least, not helped — by the very things studios tend to do to difficult movies to make them digestible.
The most problematic aspect of the film is a hard one to discuss without seeing the miles of footage left on the floor of Scorsese's longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker (or on the floor of a less benevolent surgeon?): Large chunks of the film's middle will bore many viewers, largely because it is hard to be very interested in some characters, particularly those played by DiCaprio and Diaz. But with all of these characters, it's easy to imagine how one or two extra scenes (however inessential to the plot) might have made them more intriguing. (Not necessarily more sympathetic, mind you.) Thus it's possible that a longer film might have been less likely to lose us.
The main story revolves around two men in Lower Manhattan's storied "Five Points" neighborhood: Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher, who is the most powerful street criminal around (as opposed to Boss Tweed, who commits his crimes from an office), and DiCaprio's Amsterdam Vallon, the revenge-minded son of a priest/gang leader who died by the Butcher's hand years earlier. Vallon is the story's hero, if there must be one, but all the film's heat is on its out-and-out villain: Day-Lewis, with a handlebar moustache, glass eye, and improbably tall stovepipe hat, struts menacingly, clearly an ancestor of every hoodlum ever portrayed by Robert De Niro. The actor's De Niro impersonation may be distracting at times, but it's also the most charismatic thing any of the leading actors do in the film.
These two inhabit a world of unbelievably brutal folk, men and women who bludgeon each other on cobblestone streets and take ears as trophies. But not all of New York's destructive gangs are small-time: We meet warring factions of police and firemen early on, and we also see Abraham Lincoln's Union through a peasant's eyes, as an unfeeling body willing to leave the rich alone while, in response to riots late in the film, pulverizing Lower Manhattan from warships.
(One of the movie's most spectacular feats involves the Army, as the camera gracefully follows fresh Irish immigrants off one ship, past the Army's recruitment desk, and back onto another ship as uniformed soldiers — while the last crop of soldiers is being moved, in coffins, from that ship to shore.)
In an attempt to convey a lot of information in a restricted running time, the filmmakers use some clumsy voiceovers; again, the filmic patient might have fared better without the surgery. And sandwiched into a generally brilliant tapestry of authentic music assembled by The Band's Robbie Robertson, the electric guitar which moans over the opening fight scene is especially out of place.
Despite these flaws, there are magnificent things to see in this film, not the least of which is the inevitable final meeting of Vallon and the Butcher: On streets engulfed in smoke, with Americans killing Americans everywhere, Scorsese concocts as strange and fiercely poetic a bit of carnage as has been seen onscreen in years. Though his voice appears to have been compromised along the way, it is hard for serious film lovers to look away when Martin Scorsese wants to show them a story of gallons of blood, Catholic immigrants, and New York City.