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Movies: The Gangs of New York

The last movie I saw in 2002 was a wonderful, sprawling epic that clocked in at 180 minutes. The first movie I saw in 2003 was also a three-hour, sprawling epic. But unlike The Two Towers, The Gangs of New York was less "sprawling" in the sense of "grandiose" and more in the sense of sprawling on the living room floor after tripping over the coffee table.

Maybe it's because they came at it from different angles. Tolkien, in writing the Lord of the Rings, started with a strong narrative and then crafted a vast and exhaustive world in which to set it, filled with larger-than-life characters and steeped in history. The screenwriter of Gangs, on the other, began with the history -- as documented in Herbert Asbury's (mostly) nonfiction Gangs of New York: An Informal History of the Underworld -- and had to add a narrative to string the people and events together. Too bad he elected to just pull Plot Number Four off the shelf and use it as his framing device. Plot Number Four is perhaps better known as Standard Revenge Fantasy: Boy has Father murdered by a Powerful Figure; Powerful Figure takes over Father's kingdom; years later, Boy (hereafter "Young Man") joins Power Figure's inner circle in the guise of an ally; Young Man is consumed by his lust for vengeance, Young Man takes on Powerful Figure, everything goes to hell in a handbasket, the end.

Where have we seen this before? Oh, that's right: Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark, though, is at least contemplative, stopping every few minutes to wonder aloud about morality and mortality. The Young Man in Gangs, meanwhile, goes about his assigned role rather perfunctorily, as if he too has seen Plot Number Four in action, knows how it's going to end, and therefore opts not to expend any energy on introspection. In other words, we have Hamlet minus the philosophy, which you may have enjoyed when it was entitled The Lion King.

(I wonder how many different movies I can compare Gangs to in a single review. Let's explore.)

There's nothing inherently wrong with using a hackneyed plot to tell a historical tale; James Cameron, for example, turned Plot Number Two ("Forbidden Love") into a Best Picture award. But Titanic succeeds because it uses the plot to explicate the backstory: Leonardo Di Caprio, in the role of Jack, serves as a primer on early 20th century class distinctions, and guides us through one of the most shocking disasters on record. Yeah, you had to sit through a few love scenes, but the focus of the film was always on the history. Gangs, on the other hand, lavishes so much time and energy on its one-dimensional characters that the real story, the setting, is eclipsed. The Leonardo Di Caprio role doesn't showcase the history so much as obscure it.

Gangs of New York isn't bad, but it sure ain't no Two Towers. By staking out the middle ground between Titanic and Hamlet, it gives neither the world nor the characters enough depth to be of much interest. That adds up to a three-hour bore -- and there, as they say in Plot Number Four, is the rub.

Posted on January 09, 2003 to Movies


Are you Canadian? Tell me. I need to know.

Posted by: Simon on January 9, 2003 12:33 PM

If you think "Titanic" succeeds and "Gangs" fails, then this is the funniest weblog ever.

Posted by: Marty on January 9, 2003 3:25 PM

Oo. That was a good one.

Posted by: Matthew on January 9, 2003 4:45 PM

You probably think I never do any work or anything, but honestly I was just sitting here eating a donut and reading...Anyhoo, how could you forget Princess Bride? Isn't that the quintessential father-killed by evil man and I'm gonna get revenge movie of our times?

Posted by: ranger on January 10, 2003 7:38 AM

Your posts are really long. You obviously don't have any children or a job.

Posted by: Mrs. Kennedy on January 10, 2003 8:19 AM

Hey, Mr. Baldwin.....are you Canadian?? Well???

Posted by: Simon on January 10, 2003 2:43 PM

While Gangs of New York certainly didn't have any moving moments that tugged at your heartstrings like Titanic, I think it succeeded in being a complex examination not just of a specific period in history, but of our constant need to categorize others into enemies, to perpetuate conflicts that could easily be buried all the while praying to same God, and believing our prayers will grant us the right to crush others. I liked that there were no heroes in the movie. Revenge seemed silly, not justified. They were all blinded and obsessed with prejudices, old conflicts, and insubstantial differences. And we keep killing for the very same reasons, even today. You took my land, you killed my father, you were born somewhere else, you pray to a different God, you don't pray, you pray differently, you are a different color, you have more money, your life is easier - there seem to be no end to reasons to kill and to wage war. (I also want a glass eye so I can tap my knife at it menacingly whenever the need arises.)

Posted by: Emese on January 10, 2003 3:35 PM

I thought 'Gangs' was going to be more or less an historic representation. After all, there were really gangs of this nature, with these names that acted in this way. But if you've read any of the available historic descriptions, this movie didn't even come close! In the movie, five Points Square, running with raw sewage in the gutters, squalid, poverty-run, was so CLEAN the pigs didn't even poop on it! Of course they wouldn't have had any excrement smeared children in the movie, would they? No aborted fetuses in the back alleys, surely not. But why make these nicely lit, comfy underground tunnels, when the real ones used to stink like bilge, run with rats and disease, and drown unsuspecting sleepers whenever the tides came in? The movie didn't even make Five Points look crowded. As a story, it was OK, but if you're going to try for realistic, then please invest in a little realism.

Posted by: froggymorning on August 21, 2003 5:35 PM