By Megan Bianco
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was released during a retrospectively impressive Oscar season: Rob Marshall’s Chicago, Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, Steven Spielberg’s Catch Me If You Can, Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, Pedro Almodóvar’s Talk to Her and Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven to name a few of the 2002 critical hits.
Scorsese’s big budget epic was one of the most anticipated, not only because the man has been considered one of his generation’s most talented filmmakers, but for the all-star cast including Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. But once the public received the film Christmas week, the feedback was more divisive and polarizing than once was expected.
The epic period piece would be one of two films Scorsese would create for Miramax Films, and also produce a turbulent collaboration with producer Harvey Weinstein. Before he was accused by up to 100 women of sexual abuse, Weinstein was originally labeled ‘Harvey Scissorhands’ in the media for meddling with filmmakers’ visions in the editing room as well as influencing casting for the sake of box-office appeal.
Gangs of New York became the first of five collaborations between Scorsese and DiCaprio, but Weinstein’s influence also included the casting of Cameron Diaz. Scorsese was originally seeking out actresses like Sarah Polley and Sarah Michelle Gellar for the female lead, but Gellar was attached to her “Buffy” TV schedule and Polley had her usual disinterest in Hollywood studio movies. Weinstein eventually won out with Diaz signing on, and the rest of the featured actors ultimately listed Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, and Henry Thomas.
I had to laugh a few months ago when it hit me that Gone with the Wind (1939) and Gangs are set in the exact same time frame of US history: 1860s Civil War. While Wind is a masterpiece of romance and melodrama, Gangs is a mixed effort on revenge and violence (although I’m sure some of the war scenes in Wind were eye-opening back in its day). Wind features slavery in the south, while Gangs focuses on Irish immigrants in New York.
One of the problems with Gangs is that the graphic fight scenes are often too over-the-top in a cartoony way. Of course it’s Scorsese, and he helped pave the way for how graphic violence can be seen on film. But in some instances with this feature, like when the character Hell-cat Maggie (Cara Seymour) jumps in slow-mo onto a man and bites his whole ear off, it’s just too much stylizing.
Another frequent complaint is the casting of DiCaprio and Diaz—especially Diaz who spent years as the butt of jokes for branching out of her usual romcoms and action flicks. It’s always been my opinion that her acting isn’t necessarily terrible, but she is more of a distraction as a world-famous starlet. And as much as she gets flack for her fake Irish accent, DiCaprio’s isn’t that impressive either.
All of that said, Day-Lewis has to be the most memorable and interesting part of the film. Portraying the unapologetic and psychopathic villain, Bill the Butcher, the antagonist to DiCaprio’s Amsterdam Vallon. His bizarre accent and witty banter makes Bill intriguing enough to be considered a modern icon in movie bad guys.
Directed by anyone else, Gangs of New York might be forgotten, or maybe achieve a small cult following. But for all the questionable choreography, casting and runtime length (248 minutes, and Scorsese’s original cut was even an hour longer), it still feels and looks like a Martin Scorsese film. That’s partly thanks to his usual editor Thelma Schoonmaker, and partly because the man just loves movies so much he can never do anything half-baked.
Those who are serious Scorsese fans have seen and possibly enjoyed Gangs of New York. But for everyone else, it’ll probably always be a bit up in the air.
Megan Bianco is a Southern California-based movie reviewer and content writer with a degree from California State University Northridge.