Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, excessive period piece, set in The Five Points of Civil War era New York City, is almost punishing in its immoderation. A directionless Leonardo DiCaprio works his way up the ladder of nativist gang chieftain Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis) to avenge the death of his father, Liam Neeson, who died at Cutting’s hand when DiCaprio was a boy. Scorsese sought to offer a steamy, vibrant and bloody portrait of the slum that was lower central Manhattan, but the feel is inauthentic and verisimilitude is overcome by the garish. The opening scene – the gang fight resulting in Neeson’s death – plays as a mash up of Walter Hill’s The Warriors and a really violent version of West Side Story. You almost expect Neeson to sing, “The Dead Rabbits are gonna’ get their way, toniiiiiight!” as he brings his crew to battle.
If only. The story is deathly dull, duller even than the featured Cameron Diaz, horribly miscast as an Irish lassie/grifter (her accent comes and goes like the viewer’s interest).
Day Lewis’s performance is widely lauded and he was nominated for a best actor Oscar, but he is so over-the-top as to appear foolish. Still, scene-chewing is bound to garner easy accolades, and Day Lewis is voracious. More surprising are the nominations of the phlegmatic script and Scorsese’s aimless helming. The film meanders, half-heartedly committing to DiCaprio’s vengeance but then veering into historical re-creation, such as the machinations of Boss Tweed and the draft riots. The former plot line is marred by DiCaprio’s sullen, disinterested performance, the latter by pat conclusions (including a pretentious morphing of old and new Manhattan that closes the film and nearly induces the gag reflex).
By the time Gangs of New York was released, Scorsese had suffered the indignities of having his classic Raging Bull lose to the tepid Ordinary People and Goodfellas go down to the overpraised and politically acceptable Dances with Wolves and certainly, the Academy felt bad about that. But guilt is a bad adviser, and this is Scorsese’s worst film (though the dull and similarly overpraised Hugo and the bruising Shutter Island are close seconds).