Our rating: 2 out of 5
reviewed by: Charity Bishop
The Gangs of New York is the biggest, most hyped Miramax production of all time. It's the story of street gang rivalries in the Victorian era, and follows the lives of two young people involved in the violent struggle between the Irish gangs of New York. The film opens with on the morning of a turbulent clash between opposing sides. Priest Vallon (a brief cameo by Liam Neeson) is preparing himself and his son to go to war. The child, Amsterdam, is getting an introduction to the real world. Armed with knives and sticks, along with a golden crucifix on a pole, they storm into the city streets. Vallon is the leader of a street gang called the Dead Rabbits, who head up a brawl with another rival gang lead by William Cutting (also known as Bill the Butcher, played by Daniel Day Lewis). As the struggle turns to violence, Amsterdam witnesses his father's brutal death at the hands of the Butcher.
Sixteen years later, emerging from an orphanage, Amsterdam (Leonardo Dicaprio) is determined to win his way into Cutting's inner-circle in the hopes of gaining political power and prowess before he takes revenge for his father's death. His journey is a dangerous one, for Cutting does not trust easily, and many distractions come in the form of inner-gang rivalries and in particular the beautiful Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket employed by Cutting as a personal friend. As Amsterdam finds himself falling for her charms, he is torn between a newfound respect for his employer's influence, and a growing concern as events unfold to tell the true story of his father's death. The film, while maintaining a historical basis, turns out to be a more modern exhibition of the division of race and culture. It's a glimpse into pre-Civil War New York's politics, and inner city streets. The politicians are often corrupt, the gangs headed up sometimes by private employers; nothing is what it seems, and our hero is forced to find the truth in a world filled with deception and lies. Of an Irish decent myself, I always appreciate a film with Celtic origins, however it doesn't paint too pretty a picture of early era New York. The tactics of those fighting are brutal. Sometimes they are pointless. A lot of blood is spilt, and yet for the most part the heroes come through (almost) unscathed. As a historical film, it has a lot of flaws. Taken by its own merit, it's an engaging story but lacks in good pacing and chemistry between the romantic leads.
It's difficult to follow many storylines without treating them unfairly or loosing the audience. Martin Scorsese does his best, but it's a difficult film and could have used some better down time. Thus said, it is an eye-catching piece of work. The costuming is gorgeous, the soundtrack is wonderfully suited to the scenes, and the acting is fairly solid. But I'm not sure it lives up to all the hype granted to it. From a Christian's perspective, it also stands on shaky ground. If the gangs were fighting for their faith, rather than using religious icons for impact, I might have been a little less severe in my closing thoughts. Basically Amsterdam wants revenge, something the scriptures warn us against. But seeing as how we often embrace a lot of stories with a vengeful plot twist this doesn't present a big problem. Other plot twists do. The content in this film is extremely heavy even for an R-rated script. The language, which includes a half dozen uses of the f-word and 13 harsh abuses of deity, could have been ignored. The violence is extremely gory (more on that in a minute), but the sexual content is the real problem. Twice Jenny and Amsterdam start necking passionately; in one instance, he unhooks her corset, they fool around a little bit, then break up in an argument. A second time they get into a row and slap each other around before their hostility turns to passion and she winds up with her legs around his waist.
Sexual activity is actually seen in passing in a brothel; there's an abundance of nudity on the part of women. The male leads often wake up in bed with a woman laying next to them (in one instance Cutting has three nude prostitutes with him). Prostitutes flaunt themselves suggestively; there are implications of orgies. Groping, references to oral sex, and graphic sexuality make the streets of New York dangerous for teens. There's a lot of innuendo and sexual dialogue. Violence is extreme, as is gore. Limbs are severed in a street riot, with bloody results; a man attacks someone else and knifes him brutally several times, killing him. There's a lot of hand to hand fighting, including a scene where Jenny and Amsterdam get rough with one another. The final scenes between the two rivals get bloody and violent as they struggle and knife one another. Men are hanged, shown impaled on fence spikes, strangled, and shot. A man is graphically disemboweled. Priests are often involved in the violence. Worst of all, both gangs spill blood in the name of God, but most of the references to the divine powers are all made mockingly. It's a story of vengeance over honor, involves a lot of sex, violence, and profanity, and takes a kick at Christian values and beliefs.