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NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

GANGS OF NEW YORK (article first published : 2003-04-24)

Martin Scorsese's labour of love, a film he's been wanting to make for 25 years, finally hits the screen after hassles regarding budget (the final tally was reportedly R800 million), on-set rows (hotly disupted) and changing release dates (it was originally due in 2001).

And was the wait worthwhile? Well, yes. And no.

The movie is fantastic in parts. Scorsese makes amazing use of countless extras and truly wonderful production values, his sets of 1800s New York, complete with harbour detail, having been painstakingly built on 40 acres in Rome.

The film is also alone worth seeing for a terrific performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who was lured out of retirement when Robert DeNiro declined the role, having been against working in Europe for so many months. In tall hat and flowing waistcoat, with a glass eye and flamboyant moustache, Day-Lewis paints a colourfully psychotic villain in Bill Cutting, a native American who is savagely anti-foreigner. And he's a butcher in more ways than one - he sells meat and is also a ruthless killer.

When we first meet Bill, it is 1846 and he is leading his bloodthirsty gang against an immigrant Irish group called the Dead Rabbits, led by the respected Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). They are battling for control of Five Points, a notoriously poor and dangerous area of lower Manhattan. Vallon is killed by Bill during the battle - a tragedy witnessed by the priest's son, Amsterdam, who spends 16 years in a reform school then returns to Five Points seeking revenge.

To this end, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) strives to get close to Bill, to learn more about him, in the process becoming a surrogate son to him.

Too much time is spent developing this relationship and focusing on Amsterdam falling for the charms of a pretty pickpocket, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz).

The film, sadly, while sprawling and ambitious, is also a rather bloated, jumbled affair, perhaps due to Scorsese having been forced to trim it to 165 minutes from an original four-hour cut. Another gripe is that while Day-Lewis, all theatricality and menace, is sublime, Leonardo Di Caprio - scrawny, pouting and with bitty beard - is woefully miscast. Not for a second does he convince as someone tough, streetwise or audacious enough to brave a face-off with one of the Big Apple's baddest seeds.

The personal rivalry between Amsterdam and Bill is set against the backdrop of the anger that greeted the Civil War draft riots of 1863. Also thrown into this cluttered mix are ingredients ranging from opium-smokers, cross-dressing hookers and Chinese theatre troupes, to a grand staging of Uncle Tom's Cabin and a scene involving an elephant escaped from Barnum's Circus.

The result is an intriguing film, not without flashes of brilliance and in which Scorsese's film-making skills are never in doubt. But there is a grand lack of soul and one questions how it managed to scoop 10 Oscar nominations. For the record, Gangs of New York stands to win statuettes for best film, director, actor (Day-Lewis), art direction, cinematography, costume design, original screenplay, editing, theme song and sound. My rating: 7/10. Billy Suter




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