There were two discs in the DVD case when I picked this movie up from the library, but I figured that one was the movie and one had special features like most DVDs do. Nope! I was wrong. For whatever reason, this movie is spread over two DVDs, with parts of the movie and special features on both discs. Yes, Gangs of New York is a long movie, but it’s shorter than Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line, and they each managed to be on one disc. I kind of get the feeling that whoever made that decision wanted to make the movie feel more epic, but it really just made it seem long.
So what’s the story? In New York City in 1846, two rival gangs battle it out for supremacy. Bill the Butcher, the leader of the American-born Natives, kills the Priest, leader of the Irish Dead Rabbits. Sixteen years later, Amsterdam, the son of the Priest, comes back for revenge.
The Good: The set direction was fabulous. Every little detail combined to make me feel like I had been transported back to the 1860s. I thought the costume design was good, too, but this movie made me realize that I know very little about historical clothing when it comes to the poor, so I could be wrong on this one. But I can’t imagine anyone would put men in those ridiculously ugly plaid trousers unless it was accurate.
The story was good one. Revenge plots are always exciting, and there were some good moments where Amsterdam struggled between admiration of Bill the Butcher and his desire for revenge.
The best acting in the movie was done by men in supporting roles. The standout actor was Brendan Gleeson. He didn’t have a lot of screen time in his role as an Irish mercenary unaffiliated with any gang, but he played his part so convincingly. His scenes were among the best in the movie. Jim Broadbent as real-life corrupt politician Boss Tweed was hilarious, and Gary Lewis made a very intense Irishman in the wrong gang. The only lead actor who did a very good job was Daniel Day-Lewis. His performance was sometimes over the top, but so was his gang-leader character, so it worked.
The Bad: Leonardo DiCaprio. His acting wasn’t terrible all the time, but his Irish accent came and went, especially when he narrated. Were there no actors that were actually Irish that could have played the part? It would have helped a lot.
The story followed Amsterdam as he followed his plan to get revenge on Bill the Butcher. Everything led up to that, and then the climax was actually about the New York City draft riots of 1863. Yes, the draft and the dissatisfaction of the poor people about it were touched on throughout the movie, but not enough for it to be the climax. I thought that that was kind of sloppy storytelling. Also, sixteen years after 1846 would have been 1862, not 1863, so they got their year wrong, too.
Also, what were so many Chinese people doing in New York in the 1860s? Especially Chinese women? That rang false. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Chinese immigrants on the West Coast at the time, but I don’t think there were very many in New York.
The Ugly: When I told my younger brother about my quest to watch these movies, he said he’d seen some nominees from 2002 and that Gangs of New York was a pretty good movie – except Cameron Diaz ruined it. Now that I’ve seen it, I have to agree. I feel like Amsterdam was so focused on revenge that he wouldn’t have the emotion left over to fall in love. If he did fall in love, it would have to be with someone amazing. Cameron Diaz never made me feel like Jenny Everdeane was anything special. She spent most of the movie looking either smug or confused. Maybe another actress could have done a better job, but since Cameron Diaz was chosen, that part of the story should have been left out altogether.
Speaking of leaving things out…This movie is almost three hours long, and I felt every second of it. It actually took me over four and half hours to watch because I kept falling asleep and having to find my place again. Granted, I had a cold, but still. Other three-hour movies have managed to keep my attention. Saving Private Ryan is actually a little bit longer than Gangs of New York, but I was surprised to find that out because the time flies by in Saving Private Ryan. I’m not asking for non-stop action; I like character development and plot intricacies. But this movie had too many scenes that didn’t move the action along or even really develop the characters. It needed to be cut down.
Oscars Won: None
Oscar Nominations: Best picture; best actor in a leading role (Daniel Day-Lewis); best director; best writing, original screenplay; best cinematography; best art direction – set direction; best costume design; best film editing; best sound; best music, original song (“The Hands That Built America”).