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Scorsese/DiCaprio: 'Gangs of New York'
A look back at the duo's first collaboration in advance of 'Killers of the Flower Moon.'
Killers of the Flower Moon, the latest collaboration between cinematic deity Martin Scorsese and the mega-star Leonardo DiCaprio, will be released this Friday, October 20. In anticipation of this momentous event, I’m going to spend this week taking a look back at the duo’s previous partnerships. We begin today with their first team-up: 2002’s Gangs of New York.
Gangs of New York was released during the 2002 awards season to a whole lotta hype. Every great director has some magnificent dream movie on which they’ve toiled for years and years, and often, those films are ultimately never realized (see: Stanley Kubrick’s Napoleon, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, Guillermo del Toro’s At the Mountains of Madness, etc). Gangs of New York was Martin Scorsese’s great passion project, a picture he’d been trying to get off the ground for more than twenty years (it took so long for Scorsese to get it made that his most famous collaborator, Robert De Niro, aged out of eligibility to play both the movie’s young protagonist, Amsterdam, and its older antagonist, Bill the Butcher). And since Scorsese is one of the greatest filmmakers of all time, everyone was naturally chomping at the bit to see just what the director had found so very compelling.
This level of anticipation probably worked against the movie, because nothing short of a cinematic Mona Lisa could have lived up to the hype. And Gangs of New York isn’t a bad film, but compared to a lot of the auteur’s other work, it’s kinda minor. Honestly, it’s not even the best movies Scorsese has made about 19th century New York City (that would be The Age of Innocence), or even one of the best movies he’s made with Leonardo DiCaprio, for that matter.
Some of the picture’s problems, I imagine, stem from the source material: It’s loosely adapted from a 1927 non-fiction by Herbert Asbury that has no actual narrative, and is really just a few hundred pages of interesting Civil War-era facts and episodes from what we today know as Lower Manhattan. Scorsese and the screenwriter Jay Cocks - who also wrote the director’s adaptations of The Age of Innocence and, many years later, Silence - had to create a plot, and the plot they wound up with is boilerplate action/revenge movie stuff.
Still, you gotta think that Scorsese would have made something better if not for the interference of mega-creep Harvey Weinstein, who ended up as one of the film’s producers. Weinstein was known for being supremely box-office-conscious, and so obnoxiously and overbearingly did he assert his creative influence that filmmakers often dubbed him “Harvey Scissorhands.” So, unsurprisingly, he and Scorsese were rumored to have butted heads quite a bit during Gangs’ production (there’s a rather pointed scene in the movie where Bill the Butcher stabs a man in the hand, and when the poor guy whimpers from the pain, Bill covers the victim’s mouth and instructs him, “Don’t make that sound again, Harvey”). And it’s an undisputed fact that Weinstein made Scorsese fire Cocks and put the script through even more rewrites (the final screenplay is credited to Cocks, Schindler’s List writer Steven Zaillian, and the playwright Kenneth Lonergan; Hossein Amini, who also adapted The Wings of the Dove for Weinstein, reportedly did uncredited work as well).
I don’t know for a fact that Weinstein is the reason so much of Gangs of New York feels broad and lowest-common-denominator; I just know “broad” and “lowest-common-denominator” are not ways I’d usually describe Scorsese’s work. I have to imagine that, left to his own devices, Scorsese would have made a movie that felt at least 50% less stupid.
Because there is a LOT of over-explaining things for the audience’s slowest members in this picture. Gangs of New York is the kind of movie that flashes back to events from just ten minutes prior, as though the viewer had the same short-term memory problems as Dory in Finding Nemo. We first meet Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas as a teenager - but when he’s reintroduced as an adult in the second reel, there’s no recycled, sepia-tinged shot of the teenage performer to make sure we understand it’s the same guy. Gangs of New York is lousy with recycled, sepia-tinged shots, and often, the role isn’t even being played multiple actors of multiple ages. I can’t imagine who, if not Weinstein, might have been concerned that the audience might not recognize Daniel Day-Lewis, John C. Reilly, and Brendon Gleason if their haircuts changed slightly after the prologue. Large swaths of the dialogue are equally condescending; not only is there a ton of redundant exposition, but there’s an egregious amount of making subtext into regular text. For example, in one scene, Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) employs Bill the Butcher to carry out some illegal dealings on his behalf, and when Bill asks why Tweed doesn’t just get the cops to do it, he says “The appearance of the law must always be upheld.” For any intelligent adult, the line is cynically droll, because the contradiction is readily apparent - but then Tweed adds, “Especially when it’s being broken,” which is overkill that robs the scene of its dark comedy.
There’s also some very questionable casting. At the time Gangs of New York was announced, people were kinda up in arms about Leonardo DiCaprio being cast as the lead, Amsterdam, and Cameron Diaz being cast as his love interest, Jenny. The DiCaprio stuff was overblown - he’s a very good actor, his post-Titanic clout is likely the reason Scorsese was able to finally secure financing for the movie at all, and his greatest shortcoming here is really his less-than-stellar disappearing/reappearing Irish accent, which is still a million times better than, say, Keanu Reeve’s less-than-stellar disappearing/reappearing British accent in Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula. DiCaprio’s character is kind of Hamlet-esque: Amsterdam wants to murder Bill the Butcher, who killed his dad when he was just a boy, but then Bill ends up being a sort of surrogate father, and Amsterdam comes to feel conflicted about executing his plan for vengeance (there’s a scene where he even saves Bill from a would-be assassin). DiCaprio really sells that inner conflict in a way I think many of his peers would not have. It says something that Scorsese willingly went on to make five more movies with DiCaprio - he must understand that whatever Gangs of New York’s faults may be, Leo isn’t really to blame (I mean, I’m not sure Marlon fucking Brando could have sold the line “She’s a prim-looking star-gazer,” let alone sold it in a foreign cadence).
Diaz, though, is a goddamn disaster. I’m not convinced her character even needed to be in the movie - her sole purpose may be ensuring that the audience knows DiCaprio’s character likes women - but she doesn’t do the film any favors. Her accent is also pretty bad… but more importantly, her whole performance is just weightless and inauthentic. It’s unlikely any performer could have done much with the role, but there are certainly ones who could have brought more plausibility to the part. Someone like Rachel Weisz or future Scorsese/DiCaprio collaborators Cate Blanchett and Michelle Williams might have left one feeling like they were too good for this underwritten character; Diaz is incapable of transcending the material. She’s not the same level of embarrassing as, say, Sofia Coppola in The Godfather Part III, but she’s definitely in over her head.
The movie also has a godawful U2 song that plays over the closing credits. Scorsese is obviously no stranger to uses of anachronistic rock music, as evidenced elsewhere in this movie, but holy crap, is this song is ever garbage. It’s a half-step away from “My Heart Will Go On,” and is yet another example of the movie being as heavy-handed and on-the-nose as possible, with the lyrics plainly laying out the story’s relevance to the modern-day United States.
Two things make Gangs of New York watchable despite being a crude paint-by-numbers thriller that contributed to Bono becoming one of pop culture’s most insufferably self-important figures.
The first is Day-Lewis, who ended up playing Bill the Butcher. Day-Lewis is the kind of actor Diaz isn’t - you could probably make him play the Bob Saget character in Full House and he’d still find some way to make it wonderful. He’s really chewing up the scenery here, and I don’t mean that as a diss. In hindsight, Bill the Butcher feels a bit like a dry run for Daniel Plainview, the role he went on to play in Paul Thomas Anderson’s masterpiece, There Will Be Blood. Bill and Daniel aren’t quite the same character, but they’re definitely first cousins.
The second thing that saves the movie is, of course, Scorsese, and the behind-the-scenes creative team he employed. This includes a lot of longtime, or at least recurring, members of his squad, like editor Thelma Schoonmaker, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, production designer Dante Ferretti, and costume designer Sandy Powell. By the time Gangs of New York was released, Scorsese was sixty, Schoonmaker was sixty-two, and Ballhaus was pushing seventy - but you’d never know it to watch the movie. Not only is this a MASSIVE production with breathtaking practical sets and credible costumes and hundreds and hundreds of extras, but it has the same level of kinetic, coked-up energy as any of Scorsese’s best work. An opening battle between the gangs, for example, is scored with Peter Gabriel’s “Signal to Noise,” and plays very much like a music video for that piece of music. You would not think that it was put together by a bunch of AARP members; Michael Bay is likely jealous of this sequence.
So while Gangs of New York may not be the magnum opus of Scorsese’s fever dreams, it’s not exactly a blemish on his record, either. If nothing else, it’s still lightyears ahead of Chicago, which beat it for Best Picture at the Oscars in 2003. Now THERE is a movie that just plain sucks.
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