Gangs of New York is a 2002 drama directed by Martin Scorsese, featuring Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cameron Diaz.

A little bit of spoilers ahead:

The movie takes place in New York during the Civil War era and is about socio-economic race relations and, more specifically, inter-gang rivalries in the Five Points neighborhood. Day-Lewis plays William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting, the gang leader of a group of American Nationalists (called “The Natives”) and a political kingmaker for “Boss” Tweed (played by Jim Broadbent). Every immigrant gang is terrorized and tormented by Bill and his crew, particularly the Irish and the “Dead Rabbits” gang. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Amsterdam Vallon, an Irish immigrant whose father (the former leader of the “Dead Rabbits”) is killed by Bill during a showdown thus driving Amsterdam down a path of revenge.

The movie is fairly long and watches as if it were two acts: the first half sort of like an exposition/character development (getting to know Bill and Amsterdam better and understanding the motivations and complicated relationships between the Vallons and Cutting), and the second half is the actual manifestation of the conflict between the two families.

So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of it:

 

What I liked:

+ Daniel Day-Lewis had a fantastic performance. He’s such a fantastic actor and blows me away every time.

+ The cast overall was pretty good. I’m not a big fan of Cameron Diaz but I even though her performance was pretty good. I didn’t think DiCaprio’s performance was on par with some of his other work, but was still pretty decent.

+ The set design was really impressive, complicated and vast. Even though sometimes the cinematography was a little confusing to follow.

What I didn’t like:

+ I’ve been trying to figure it out for the past few days but I can’t really put my finger on it. The movie felt like it was really close to being something really awesome, but it just quite didn’t make it and I don’t really know why. There was a lot of really grand poetry: the circularity of Priest Vallon -> Bill -> Amsterdam. Vallon defeated Bill and let him live on in shame, giving Bill the motivation to find his inner strength and authority again and then Bill doing the same to Amsterdam between Act I and Act II. New York was a house divided in the bigger house divided (Civil War), both with the rich vs poor conflict (especially with respect to the draft) and with the natives vs immigrant conflict (literally “The Natives” against everyone coming onto the shores of New York). This movie, despite being over a decade old, still feels relevant considering all the race and socioeconomic tensions underlying the current sociopolitical climate. These are all qualities that make a good movie a masterpiece movie, but somehow Gangs of New York didn’t quite make it for me. Maybe it was a little too grand in its gesture or maybe DiCaprio’s character’s reflections towards the end made it too pedantic and forced. I’ll continue mulling over it, and maybe will grow to appreciate it a bit more (kind of like how I grew to appreciate Manchester by the Sea — also Kenneth Lonergan incidentally — a little bit more as time went by).

Overall would give it a 7 or 7.5 out of 10. If anything, I’d recommend it for Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance and for the teeny bit of awesome Liam Neeson.

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