For some reason I didn’t expect all that much from Martin Scorsese’s new picture GANGS OF NEW YORK. I’m not really a big fan of period pieces, I’m just as ignorant of history as anybody else who is ignorant of history and I don’t have any opinion one way or the other on “Leo” who plays the protagonist Amsterdam or “Danny” who plays Robert Deniro playing an early gang leader named Bill the Butcher. (You know, the same way Roddy Piper played Kurt Russel in THEY LIVE).
But I guess I forgot about that Scorsese, he knows how to make a fuckin movie. GANGS OF NEW YORK is an archetypal type story of some guy whose dad was killed in a gang battle, he escaped and hid away for many years and then came back for revenge. But you know he’s a cowboy or a samurai or a wizard or some shit so he plans for the perfect time to murder Bill in front of everybody at a big celebration of the anniversary of killing his dad. And in the meanwhile he befriends him, to make it all the easier and all the worse.
BUT WAIT! Along the way there is bonding. You know like a John Woo picture or what have you, of course he ends up having a sort of fatherly relationship with this guy, and this guy starts having a sonly relationship with him. So you got the scene where he saves the life of the guy he’s gonna kill, and the scene where the guy he’s gonna kill finds out he’s gonna kill him and thankfully yells something other than “I treated you like a SON and this is what you do to me, you FUCK ME IN THE ASS?”
So that’s the story but then the whole thing is set against this sprawling type backdrop of immigration and class and race strife and the beginning of the civil war. This is what really makes the movie interesting because it is huge and detailed, so it’s a good setting. And more than that it’s full of interesting themes because it’s showing you very graphically that this hatred and violence and feeling of impending apocolypse has been in New York since the very beginning.
The feel of the movie is kind of weird. There are just these huge, stylized but probaly fairly historically accurate sets, full of people in these costumes. You got the people getting off the boats, the people passing out literature, trying to sign up troops for the civil war, you got competing fire brigades getting in brawls and beautiful ladies and pickpockets and it’s like you’re just floating through hearing these overlapping conversations and bits of different songs playing in all different directions and I swear to you for the first half hour or so of the movie I thought I was on the Pirates of the Caribbean.
I thought the movie hit a couple sour notes when it got a little too modern or cartoony. The opening gang battle between The Dead Rabbits and the Whoever the Other Gang Was is mostly great, like some epic History Channel remake of THE WARRIORS. Liam Neeson (DARKMAN) leads his gang of Irish Catholics holding a huge metal cross. The battle is real chaotic so I’m not sure if he bludgeoned anybody with the Lord or not. But then all the sudden this modern electro pop business comes in, I don’t know if it’s Peter Gabriel or one of those type of dudes, and at about the same time this gal with big sharp teeth like a staple remover goes flying through the air and bites a guy’s ear off. She coulda been in FROM DUSK TILL DAWN. Also at the very end of the movie it kind of rushes into this terrible U2 song as if to say, “okay people, 3 hours is up. let’s get the next batch in here.”
But those were my biggest problems with the movie. Other people will tell you that Leo DiCaprio is miscast or complain about Cameron Diaz’s amazing disappearing, reappearing Irish accent. But I didn’t have a problem with them. I think it’s that whole catch-187 of being a big movie star. They’ll put you in the movie because you’re a movie star, but people will hate you in the movie because you’re a movie star, even if you do a good job. I’m not saying somebody else couldn’tve done a better job, I’m sure they could’ve. But it’s mainly your preconceived notions of the actors that hold them back. Maybe that’s a good enough argument that they shouldn’t be cast. But they do just fine.
Wouldn’t that be funny if instead of DiCaprio people on the internet called him DiCRAPrio. That would really show him for being a popular actor. Or hey, maybe DiFAGrio. Ha ha. Let’s steal his lunch money.
What really makes this movie standout I think is the way the historical background of the civil war and what not becomes crucial to the story of the gang battle. You slowly learn more and more about the unrest and these draft riots and then everything comes together. It’s nice to see a historical picture that doesn’t try to paint everything in black and white terms. For example, the beginning of the draft riots is very cathartic. It takes place in this oppulent mansion where powder puff rich fucks are standing around enjoying tea. This scene is very jarring after 2 1/2 hours of every character and setting covered in filth, so you can’t help but get a kick out of it when shit comes crashing through the windows.
But then I hope you’re not siding with the rioters, because the issue seems to be not as much war as they don’t like black people. And they make this pretty clear when they start lynching them. Then the soldiers come in and start stabbing everybody with bayonets, and you’re not exactly going to side with those dudes either. So it’s high drama without telling you what to think.
I really like the way this movie brings up things that you rarely if ever see in movies. Like we can’t keep pretending that the race issue still is and always has been a north vs. south thing. Here we see that many people in the north are just as racist as the ones in the south, they just don’t have slaves to prove it. That’s why that republican party fella in California can be in the same hot water that Trent Lott was just in. Even in California there are assholes who send out articles about how it would be better if the south had won the civil war and the problems of the time were not racism, but reconstruction. Thanks alot california.
Also, isn’t it amazing to think that there used to be a huge prejudice against the Irish? These days you would have no idea somebody was Irish-American unless they started bragging about it around St. Patrick’s Day. And then the worst thing you would think would be, “I wonder why that dude is so into being Irish?” It’s too bad these other prejudices are taking longer to wipe out.
Also, I like how Bill the Butcher (who by the way is literally a butcher, just like a friend of mine who got a scary reputation because his nickname was not taken literally enough) calls himself a Native American and hates all the new immigrants. In this case Native American does not mean American-Indian, it means your parents immigrated instead of you. This is a good reminder of how ridiculous us white people are pretending we own this place.
If you don’t appreciate all this, you will at least appreciate “Danny”‘s performance as Bill the Butcher. He’s a very memorable and convincing villain. Both feeble and menacing. Good with knives. Very scary and a little charming. I know it’s gonna be either him or Jack Nicholson for the oscar, and I’d be happy with either one.
Another ambitious New York story is Spike Lee’s new one, THE 25TH HOUR. This falls into the category of the slightly more straightforward Spike Lee movies like CLOCKERS, but it’s still clearly his work. It’s also kind of a comeback for him after the muddled story and horrifyingly bad digital video of BAMBOOZLED and the funny but TV-like ORIGINAL KINGS OF COMEDY.
Also it’s nice to see yet another thorn in the side of that old closet KKK fuckwad argument that pops up on newsgroups and talkbacks once a year about “How come Spike Lee only makes movies about black people?” Like there would be anything wrong with that. Like they never saw SUMMER OF SAM, or even DO THE RIGHT THING which is as much about Sal and his sons as it is about anybody else. In this one all the leads are white except for the beautiful Rosario Dawson. I think the only other black people in the movie are DEA agents.
This one is about a dude named Monty (Edward Norton, from 1999 outlaw award winner for best motherfuckin picture FIGHT CLUB). He’s basically a good guy, we know this when he saves the life of a badly injured dog in the opening scene. But he’s made his fortune dealing drugs for the Ukrainian mafia, and he kind of intends to go out of business but manages to get pinched first (or “touched” as he calls it).
But like ‘R XMAS it’s not really a crime movie. Instead it’s a slow moving character drama about how he chooses to spend his last day before going off to prison. This lucky rich fuck, he’s out on bail I guess, so he gets to have a going away party instead of just sitting it out in a holding cell. He spends the day with his girlfriend who may or may not have turned him in (Rosario Dawson), and his two best childhood friends: an asshole investment banker (Dr. Barry Pepper) and a timid private school teacher (Philip Seymour Hoffman, who jacked off onto a wall in HAPPINESS, so you just know he shouldn’t be a teacher). Also there’s Anna Paquin (from that weird psychedelic goose movie FLY AWAY HOME) as the student you just know shouldn’t have him as a teacher, and Brian Cox as Monty’s dad. So these characters get together and they discuss the mistakes they’ve made, they make more mistakes, and they ponder what to do next (do I kill myself? Do I make a run for it?)
All the leads are great and the characters are very believable. I especially liked the introduction of Barry Pepper in a huge room full of computer screens manned by future heart attack victims in ties. He argues with his boss, throws competetive homophobic insults at other dudes and can’t stop squeezing a stress ball. Obviously I would have no clue but I felt like that must be EXACTLY what it feels like to be in a room like that. What a bunch of fuckin assholes.
There’s also a memorable performance by a sarcastic DEA officer who enjoys taunting Monty after he’s busted him.
What maybe is more interesting though than the characters and the plot is that Mr. Lee, like Mr. Scorsese, is one of these “NEW YORK DIRECTORS” who are so proud of being from New York that most of their movies end up being their statement about New York. So Mr. Lee would be remiss I guess if he didn’t take this opportunity to paint a portrait of post 9-11 New York. To me, one of the most memorable scenes is the eventless opening credits. Haunting, epic Terence Blanchard music over shots of two light beams shining up into the night sky where the towers used to be. I couldn’t tell you what exactly Mr. Lee intended by this but for me it really worked. And 9-11 definitely hangs over the whole movie, from the fire fighter memorials in Brian Cox’s bar to the conversation in Barry Pepper’s apartment overseeing the cleanup at Ground Zero.
Definitely the most powerful scene, and the one that really made the multiplex audience I saw it with realize maybe this wasn’t a cop thriller, is what you could only call the “FUCK YOU” sequence. In what comes off as both an homage to TAXI DRIVER and a sequel to the racial epithet montage in DO THE RIGHT THING, Edward Norton looks into a mirror and watches his reflection curse just about every possible group in New York and surrounding areas. Everybody from Osama bin Laden to Korean grocers. You gotta sympathize with most of his anger even though he’s throwing in terms like “towel head” left and right. Like that book “GET YOUR WAR ON” it’s a nice angry antidote to the phoney media picture of lockstep flagwaving unity and everybody loving each other and don’t worry it only SEEMS like Enron and Bush and Co. are fucking you and everybody else in the ass with a giant red white and blue splintery telephone pole.
I mean finally somebody besides me points out that even if the NYPD are great heroes they also left 51 bullets in Amidou Diallo. Thank you Mr. Lee.
It might be hard to imagine what all this has to do with the story about Monty going to prison, and for anybody who hates it for reasons besides “it was boring”, it will probaly be because they don’t see the connection. It’s abstract, but I think it works. This guy realizes everything he hates about New York just as he realizes how much he is going to miss it. And just as he realizes that what he’s done is his fault, not everybody else’s. At this time, when everyone decides that New Yorkers are the toughest and most beautiful bastards in the world, he might have to run away to Texas and never come back. There is also a parallel between the “end of the world as we know it” of 9-11 and the end of his world as he leaves upper class Manhattan for shaving his eyebrows and getting jocked.
It’s funny, people say Spike Lee is too preachy but then he doesn’t lead you enough to be sure what exactly he’s preaching.
I wouldn’t put this in the top ranks of Spike Lee movies. Like many of them it is a little meandering and lacking in focus. But like all of them except BAMBOOZLED it’s beautifully shot and acted. And like every one of them it has a lot of interesting ideas that it explores in interesting ways, so it’s worth seeing and thinking about.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.