Wednesday, April 7, 2010
Last week I announced I was starting a new series on my blog called Second Chances, in which I would begin re-watching movies I did not like as much as most people did, then reconsider my stance. This is the first entry in that series, which will usually run on Tuesdays.
There's a brilliant and justifiably famous scene at the beginning of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York in which a gang of Irish immigrants called the Dead Rabbits prepares for battle against a particularly rotten gang of so-called "natives." To the tune of an ominous, slightly discordant flute and drum battle song, a band of ragtag Irishmen, led by a stoic Liam Neeson, marches through the catacombs of their New York headquarters. They pass all manner of men sharpening swords and making blunt instruments blunter, as more and more grim warriors join the horde. Death is in the air, and everyone knows it. As the song increases in intensity, then stops dead, with Brendan Gleeson kicking open a door to an empty, snowy courtyard, the viewer has been worked into a frenzy of anticipation.
And this is when you should stop watching Gangs of New York, because nothing that comes afterward is even remotely in the same league.
Even the battle that follows is more cartoonish than genuinely brutal. And it just goes downhill from there.
This is how I felt about Gangs of New York when I saw it back in the theater in 2002, and it's how I still feel after watching it again this past Saturday. The fact that it was nominated for best picture that year, and that one film fan I respect listed it in his top ten for the previous decade, made me wonder if I'd gotten it wrong. Nope.
My biggest problem with Gangs of New York, that I often cite to people, is that it reminds me of a production of Oliver Twist. That's not a great way to describe it, in and of itself -- there have been very excellent productions of Oliver Twist over the years, and the one Roman Polanski made a couple years ago was quite realistic looking indeed. However, in this case, I am using the insult to attack the authenticity of Gangs of New York, and also the whole silly world of pickpockets that seems very Dickensian and somehow precious. A movie that has Cameron Diaz as a pickpocket doesn't seem like the gritty Martin Scorsese I know and love -- it reeks of pageantry and falseness.
Like the sets and costumes. Gangs of New York's drab production design is not "good drab." It looks like some Disney version of drab, with paper-thin sets and costumes you could have picked up from the local Spencer Gifts. It looks like someone wanted to throw a stage version of Oliver!, and maybe that's what I really mean with the Oliver Twist comment. The level of believability of anything that happens in the movie certainly makes me think that they could break into song at any moment.
And Leonardo DiCaprio's narration? It's as excessive and stultifying as Ray Liotta's narration was essential and fulfilling in Goodfellas. In fact, I'd argue that Gangs of New York is the perfect example of why narration usually does not work, and is in fact considered a lazy narrative device.
If the narration is bad, then the dialogue is worse. I was struck by how it's one of those movies where secondary characters -- or members of a crowd -- take turns shouting out lines of dialogue that describe what's at stake in every scene, in totally unambiguous terms. Where's the nuance? Cheesy.
I should pause one moment to say that Daniel Day-Lewis is, as usual, electric in this film. His Bill the Butcher is gloriously menacing. But the quality of the acting by everyone else is so poor, Day-Lewis' performance gets swallowed up. Besides, I still think he's ten times more frightening in There Will Be Blood.
But if there's any one moment in Gangs of the New York that stands out for me, explaining better than anything else why this is a bad movie, it's the scene where DiCaprio's character has amassed a loyal following of rebellious Irish, ready to resurrect the Dead Rabbits. In probably the cheesiest bit of staging in Martin Scorsese's entire career, these characters stand in silent defiance, holding candles, on several levels of a town square, like they're holding a candlelight vigil. I don't remember the exact wording of DiCaprio's narration in this scene, but it's cringe-worthy. All I could think when I saw that was "This is a Martin Scorsese movie?"
Second Chance Verdict, Gangs of New York: Still terrible.