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Gangs of New York

June 23, 2013

Gangs of New York (2002)
Director: Martin Scorsese
Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz


Synopsis: Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) plots his revenge on the brute Bill Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) who had slain his father some sixteen years before. Against the backdrop of this, modern America is taking shape with a huge swathe of Irish immigrants and the growing strength of the federal government in the years of the Civil War.

Review: Martin Scorsese’s bludgeon through mid-Nineteenth century New York social history is a dazzling spectacle, and a really dense and earnest attempt to bring to life a hitherto underdocumented (at least in cinematic terms) street-level chapter of one of the world’s most famous cities. You simply have to applaud the magnitude and ambition of Scorsese’s vision – it really is New York conceived of on a grand scale, and I can only wonder at the budget and levels of military organisation needed to bring this story to life. The pulverising opening as Priest Vallon’s “Dead Rabbits” (a gang of Irish immigrants) fight Bill Cutting’s ironically named “Natives” sets the tone perfectly for Scorsese’s immense tone, as in a labyrinth slum, all the hardened souls of Vallon’s gang march theatrically en route to their battle.

It really is a rich, rich film – almost too rich – as Scorsese tackles so many themes weighty to US history at the time (the huge influx of Irish immigrants and the ire they encountered, how Lincoln’s conscription act inflamed city opinion, and the subsequent riots that ensued). On top of this, Scorsese tags on the obligatory ‘personal’ drama, with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the Irish upstart with the father-revenge subplot and a love interest. Scorsese’s only weakness might be in a sense trying to do too much on both a personal and macro-historical level. He really does flog the material for all it’s worth, making a truly substantial historical tapestry, and it all ends fittingly on the mythic montage of Vallon and Cutting’s graves framed by the changing cityscape of New York. (June 2013)

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