Well, it's finally here. After decades (yes, decades; Scorcese put an ad in Variety magazine for this film in 1977), rumors have flown, financiers have come and gone, countless articles have been written about the supposed tension between Martin Scorcese and Hollywood's favorite obnoxious fat cat Harvey Weinstein, and "Gangs of New York" has finally made it to the big screen. Unfortunately, the film is a mess. Fortunately, it is a big, ambitious one with quite a few remarkable moments.
The setting is mid-1800s New York City. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), after spending many years in jail, returns to his hometown of the Five Points with one thought in his head: to try and get revenge on William "Bill the Butcher" Cunning (Daniel Day-Lewis), the man who killed his father (Liam Neeson). Since Vallon's father was killed, Cunning has become a mafia godfather type figure to the five points: he is someone to be feared and respected; in his own words: "Everybody owes, everybody pays". He controls everything that goes on in the Five Points; his power and influence is felt all over town, from the police (led by "Happy Jack", played by John C. Reilly) to the mayor, William Tweed (Jim Broadbent).
Things get complicated once Vallon reaches the five points, however. Cunning begins to take quite a liking to him, and takes him under his wing. Vallon also meets a lovely pickpocket, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), who often flirts with (and steals from) him, but it is questionable to whom her allegiance really lies: Vallon or Cunning? It becomes clear to Vallon that he must act quickly before he has lost his chance to try and kill Bill the Butcher.
"Gangs of New York" often walks the line between the exhilarating and the dull; the inspiring and the tepid. It peaks less than it lulls, and flings itself all over the place. There are several scenes where one is simply in awe of the sheer scope and brutality of it all, but right behind scenes such as those is are convoluted extra subplots dragging the whole thing down.
Watching "Gangs", I couldn't help but think that such an ambitious, huge project might be a little out of Scorcese's grasp. He desperately loves the material, and his passion is evident, but he finds no way to focus his energy so that it infects the audience as well. He wants to tell every story and turn over all stones, but this means sacrificing the heart that he wants the film to have. There are so many unnecessary subplots plaguing "Gangs": elections, drafts, side-brawls, etc., etc. Within all this madness, the emotional backbone of the story is almost completely lost.
This backbone is the relationship between the younger Vallon and Cunning. This could have been a powerful match, but sadly it ultimately fails. Bill the Butcher is such a brilliantly conceived character, played with such an extraordinarily fierce passion by Daniel Day-Lewis. However, Amsterdam Vallon is such a generic, colorless shell of a person that it hardly makes sense as to why Cunning liked him so much in the first place. The faux-father/son relationship loses out on the complexity it tries to achieve since only one end of it is as intense as it needs to be.
However, what "Gangs" lacks in clarity and complexity, it makes up for in sheer adrenaline and ambition. When it does peak, it really goes all-out. It hits the roof with a bloody, exhilarating vengeance that is hard not to get caught up in. If only "The Two Towers" had not been released to wow us just as much, "Gangs" would have easily been called one of the most technically impressive films of all time. Apparently, the main set for the film was a mile long. To achieve that level of detail, in that scope-- one mile! Go walk a mile, and then you may realize the amount of work that must have been involved in creating such a set.
Although it is almost impossible to wish that one could achieve a certain level of control with something of that enormity, if realized in the early stages, "Gangs of New York" could've been much more coherent. But it is only human to fall out a little with something this huge. For Scorcese being able to make what he did out of it, and for the incredible performance of Daniel Day-Lewis, "Gangs of New York" is an easy recommendation to make.