Sunday 13 August 2023

Battle cry of the city: "Gangs of New York"

When I saw Gangs of New York u
pon its first run two decades ago, I remember being dazzled by its scale and dizzied by its momentum, while also remaining aware that it was, in certain respects, a folly. A long-time Martin Scorsese passion project, thrashed into some kind of shape by three top-end screenwriters (Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan), it finally emerged - some while delayed, after an extended shoot and the traumas of 9/11 - in a version Harvey Weinstein had extensively tampered with. (Even Scorsese wasn't immune from the producer's interventions: he offers a retort of sorts by bestowing the producer's first name on the gambler Bill the Butcher accuses of not putting up enough money.) As it celebrates its twentieth anniversary, a distribution rights change (from the guarded Entertainment to the more laissez-faire Lionsgate) and a reclassification from a UK 18 to a 15, it merits another look, not least to allow us to reassess its myriad pros and cons. 

The opening march to battle, where Liam Neeson's priest meets his match at the hands of Daniel Day-Lewis's Bill, suggests an influence I hadn't spotted in 2003: that this was, among other things, Scorsese's response to the success of 2000's Gladiator, reimagining New York as a colosseum that requires the raising of vast sets (by Dante Ferretti) on which fists and other weapons can be swung and the future of an empire will be determined. After a run of spiritual-personal endeavours (1997's Kundun, 1999's Bringing Out the Dead), this was Scorsese beginning an outwardly commercial phase that would return him to the Academy's radar, and eventually land him his first Best Director Oscar for 2006's The Departed. Had he initiated this project now - with assistance from Netflix or Apple, as has become the Scorsese norm - he would surely have enjoyed a freer hand and final cut, an extra hour to play with, time to smooth out the Henry Thomas-shaped bumps in this narrative and build to an emotional crescendo. The film Scorsese turned out in 2003 remains a jostling hotchpotch, a mixed bag with flashes of excellence and brilliance. In a sign of 21st century things to come, its vision of America violently yanking itself out of the mud would be improved upon on cable TV, over the course of David Milch's extraordinary Deadwood; and in fact that new certificate serves as its own, not inaccurate review. The forging of any turbulent city in blood and thunder really demands an 18 rating, as Milch's backers at HBO understood. Gangs of New York now presents as half the picture it really needed to be - while also serving twice as much picture as anybody else was then giving.

As foundational myths go, this is neither as detailed nor as profoundly felt as that Milch bestowed upon us, but then Scorsese's film proves so much more thrilling for wearing its many years of scholarship so lightly; at its strongest, we get caught up in events, as we do any other ripping yarn or heaving metropolitan crowd. The script's vengeance arc - with Neeson's son Leonardo DiCaprio playing a long game of payback - is really an excuse to film a series of chaotic dust-ups, from the political manoeuvring to hang a bunch of patsies to a backstreet boxing match that descends into an all-out brawl. Part of the film's project is a rambunctious expansion of Raging Bull: a film in which just about everybody's ready to rumble. (The sharp angles of Ferretti's set-building are central to this: every street corner strikes the eye as contestable territory, visibly up for grabs.) What was lost in post-production was crucial connective tissue. In between the setpieces, we become aware of the film's myriad short cuts, the trade-offs required in 2003 to turn a then-expensive $100m production into a book-balancing blockbuster. Rather than actors, we get stars - and suddenly the film seems wobblier: a rare Scorsese movie without a truly outstanding or anchoring performance, either because Weinstein cut the heart and soul out of the picture, or because nearly everyone on set was overwhelmed by the scale of the production.

DiCaprio gets the cockiness right, and you buy him as a child torn between father figures (Neeson, Day-Lewis, Brendan Gleeson as a reminder of the character's Irish roots). What he can't sell you on - what this actor has always struggled to sell us on - is toughness: asked to project anything like that, he reverts to screwing up his face, in the hope we'll forget about his perilously scrawny body. Given her near-retirement, it's pleasing to see Cameron Diaz again as the city's resident colleen/hellcat Jenny, though this cut is far less interested in her than it is in, say, Jim Broadbent's divide-and-rule Tammany; she floats the prospect of a Titanic-like romance, a measure of tenderness to offset the copious butchery, and yet Jenny still looks like a character constructed entirely from producer's notes. As for Day-Lewis: this is as close as we've ever come to watching the great screen actor of our time do pantomime, though I don't mean that entirely as a negative, not least because Day-Lewis was smart enough to realise there were benefits to going so big. The accent is as chewy as it ever sounded (first among equals in a film with some very chewy accent work), but Bill is nothing if not a memorable character, only agreeing to enter into battle with Neeson's priest after first ascertaining the latter has numbers enough to make battle worthwhile. (Here is someone who relishes and savours the fight - the bigger and bloodier the better.) With his top hat and patter and his extravagantly curlicued moustache, he's a dubious ringmaster - comprehensively overshadowing the PG-rated P.T. Barnum, reduced here to the status of bitplayer. With its panoply of character actors (count 'em: Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan) and its cameo from John Sessions, not as Lincoln but as a ham actor playing Lincoln, this is more than anything a vision of America as an especially vicious circus - a big show, complete with thousands of extras duking it out for supremacy and spectacle just about everywhere else you look. In that uncertain moment after 9/11 - when the characteristically sunny Spielberg took a turn for the pessimistic (Minority Report, War of the Worlds) - Gangs of New York was Scorsese's affirmation that the show must go on. For better and worse, it did.

Gangs of New York played in selected cinemas last week; it is currently available to stream on Prime Video, and on DVD through Entertainment in Video.

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