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Last Updated:  Friday, 10 January, 2003, 12:30 GMT
Gangs loses fight for epic glory

By Rebecca Thomas
BBC News Online entertainment staff

Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day Lewis
The action takes place during an explosive period of US history
Legendary director Martin Scorsese has finally released his epic Gangs of New York, a movie which was 20 years in the planning and three years in the making.

The term epic has become rather too readily bandied about when it comes to movies in recent times, often with little more justification for the description than the trend for directors to push their projects over two hours.

But in its heroic vision and mammoth scale production, and near three-hour roll-out, director Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York truly fits the bill.

Like the cinema epics of old - such as Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia - Gangs of New York is a bold historical drama.

It unfolds over several years and attempts to paint a wide panorama of events and issues with a large support cast and big name stars.

And like every would-be cinema masterpiece, Gangs of New York has that added piquancy of rumoured artistic and financial rows dogging its eventual arrival onscreen.

It is set in 1860s New York, a time when rival gangs of Irish immigrants and native Americans are involved in a continuous and bloody battle for control of the Manhattan streets.

The pair foster a love hate relationship
DiCaprio teams up with Cameron Diaz in the epic
At the centre of the conflict is the young Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), the son of the late immigrant leader.

He was butchered some 20 years earlier by his enemy gang helmsman William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis).

Ambitious

Having spent his childhood in reform school, Vallon emerges as an adult hell-bent on avenging his father's death.

To do this he must get close to Cutting. So, hiding his identity, Vallon ingratiates himself with his enemy and soon becomes his right-hand man.

Though revenge is never out of his thoughts, Vallon's situation is made increasingly precarious when he falls for Cutting's pet female, the mysterious pick-pocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz).

The only certainty in the outcome of the drama is that much more blood and many more lives will be lost before a conclusion to the tension and conflict is reached.

By rights, such a project should elicit a grandiose response, either heartily in favour or wholly damning.

Yet, Gangs of New York is neither the great movie it was intended to be nor an outright flop and its effect can only be described as sadly lukewarm.

On the plus side, there is no denying the artistic courage and interest of Scorsese's dramatisation of a little known side of America's racial and political history.

Cameron Diaz
Diaz shows off her diverse acting talent
The sets are sumptuous, the fight scenes are unflinchingly violent and a nail-biting tension reigns throughout.

Scorsese's attempts to bring out a compelling human story are also valiant and indebted to the strong performances of the three leads.

Overblown

DiCaprio is both compelling and charismatic as Vallon and proves he is maturing into an accomplished and powerful actor.

Likewise, Diaz has abilities which stretch far beyond the comedy roles for which she is best known.

But it is Day-Lewis' Machivellian creation that undeniably steals almost every scene, as he develops from an almost comic stereotypical arch villain into a truly terrifying tour de force.

Where Gangs of New York fails is in its overbearing sentimentality and the distracting confusion in the plot.

Relentless background music sets teeth on edge. Too many half-baked, and one suspects over-edited, strands cloud the story.

In particular, the backdrop of the Civil War is irritatingly rushed over, leaving a greater sense of contextual confusion than if it had been omitted outright.

And most frustrating is that, even with all the time, effort and money thrown at Gangs of New York, it is missing that essential epic ingredient, namely an overwhelming sense of enormity.

The closing credits bring a sense of relief that the film is finally over. But over and beyond that feeling comes a sad sense of missed opportunity.

The suspicion is that what could have been a masterpiece was blighted by the devotion of Scorsese himself - a great director who nonetheless lost his focus by becoming too close to and dwelling too long upon his great career-defining opus.





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