There was a retro craze at the time Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York was released. The movie is enough to make one think, wow! When Martin Scorsese goes retro, he REALLY doesn't half-ass it! Gangs of New York takes us all the way back to the 60's, alright - the 1860's! Korea and Vietnam at the time are places that only the richest and most educated Americans of the era have ever heard of - maybe, and if they have, those places are vague bells in the backs of their heads, rang briefly at mentions of their names before being dismissed and never thought of again. The Civil War is the massive conflict on everyone's immediate concern list. The draft is just around the corner, and most are wondering about whether or not the war will reach New York.
Gangs of New York is most definitely a gangster movie, one which can safely be mentioned in the same breath as Mean Streets, Goodfellas, or Casino, Martin Scorsese's other classic gangster flicks. So you shouldn't be fooled by the fact that it takes place 100 years before any of those other movies. There are a lot of the standards: Bribing the Police, fights between different factions of gangs, corrupt politicians (the infamous Boss Tweed is a major character), small-time gangsters looking to get by, a big boss bad guy who holds an iron grip on the neighborhood, and an occasional hit on a rival. Yet, there's no mistake that this really is a different world. There are two different kinds of Police forces, the Municipals and the Metropolitans. Firefighters are all in separate departments which bicker and fight over territories constantly - sometimes right in the middle of a fire both had rushed into. If it looks like the fire is about to win, they simply loot the place next door. The immigrants coming into the country are yanked away from the ships right away and forced to serve in the Civil War.
Beneath the gorgeous old-timey veneer, though, lies a story that's deceptively simple: Boy watches his father get killed in a gang war. Boy grows up vowing revenge on his pop's killer, works his way into the killer's inner circle and rises up Grant Theft Auto-style, and eventually extracts his revenge! Seriously, for all the grandiosity of the setting, that's the whole plot in a nutshell. If you ever get lost when you're trying to watch the movie, you can always find your place again by asking yourself a simple question: Has the main character, Amsterdam Vallon, killed Bill the Butcher yet? If not, you're still watching the movie.
That's pretty much all the plot is. There are people who switch sides in Gangs of New York, but virtually all that happens offscreen, in events that took place between the years 1846 and 1862. Why, you ask, are those two precise years so important to the movie? Because they're the two years the movie takes place in. Actually, there are probably a few people who would be willing to axe the events in 1846 because they're nothing more than the introduction to what's going on in 1862. Here's the scoop: In 1846, there was a big, violent gangland war between the immigrants from Ireland and the people who hated immigrants, also known as the Nativists. The immigrants are led by a man known only as Priest Vallon, while the Nativists are headed by William Cutting, better known as Bill the Butcher. Bill kills Priest, ending the entire squabble and orphaning Priest's son, Amsterdam. Naturally, Amsterdam isn't quite able to let go of that moment very fast, and upon his release from his boarding school, he throws his supplied Bible into the creek while walking over the bridge away from the building. His line of thinking from this point is along the vein of, damn right revenge is one of the Seven Deadly Sins! Deadly for Bill the Butcher! (An evil laugh presumably follows.)
Returning to Five Points, his old neighborhood slum in New York City, he's vowing to even the score with The Butcher. Amsterdam is a guy fueled by his pure rage and hatred. He hates Bill the Butcher, naturally, and is just plain pissed when he learns that the Nativists actually celebrate his dad's death date every year. Priest's old loyalists have apparently popped up all over The Butcher's payroll, which upsets Amsterdam even more. He actually gets into Bill's gang, though, and is slowly apprenticed as he learns the really cool knife techniques - taught to him by Bill himself - which he plans to use to whack Bill. Oh, and every year on the anniversary of Priest's death, Bill also drinks a shot of fire for Priest in a public ceremony. This year, Amsterdam wants that shot of fire to be the last thing Bill ever drinks.
There's also something about a thief named Jenny. She's a third wheel.
There's the plot. Amsterdam wants to kill Bill. there are things going on amidst the backdrop, and a wrench is thrown into Amsterdam's original murder plans by the fact that Bill lives to scar Amsterdam, but that only serves to steel Amsterdam's original resolve. It's a great credit to Martin Scorsese that he's able to make us all forget that, underneath all the backdrops and fancy sets, the plot really is that simple. Bill the Butcher, in fact, is cartoonishly over the top in the same way that Casino villain Nicky Santoro was. The fact that Bill clearly has a great respect for Priest is supposed to be thrown in there for a little bit of character nuance, but there's no two sides anywhere inside Daniel Day-Lewis's compelling performance as Bill. You want to know how cartoonish Bill is? He has a handlebar mustache and a top hat reminiscent of all those classic cartoons where the bad guy in the black top hat and the handlebar mustache ties the damsel to the train tracks.
I truly loved the historical backdrop of Gangs of New York. Movies set in this era tend to be either westerns or about the One Percent, and so the poor people of Five Points and similar slums in other cities aren't portrayed very often. Gangs of New York gets that extra line of color for taking place during the New York City Draft Riots, one of the most important events in New York City's long history. As some of the interviewees on the DVD features say, Gangs of New York was basically the wild west set in an eastern city. The rich sets create a character for the movie, drag viewers in, and show us the people from some of the muddiest corners of American history that our school textbooks keep excluding.
The great appeal of Gangs of New York lies in that. The plot gets caught up in a lot of minutia, so Five Points - which was a real neighborhood that existed not very far from today's Freedom Tower - pops to life with the look and feel of a real neighborhood. The place is rife with locals, both immigrants and townies, all living their own lives as Amsterdam plots away. It's also just incredible to look at the unsanitary conditions and see how the people in Five Points entertained themselves.
None of that, however, is enough to make me forget just how much of the movie could easily have been hacked off. In Goodfellas, Scorsese needed a running time of two and a half hours - very long at the time - to flesh out the entire story, and every scene in that movie was necessary. In Casino, he went a little nuts with tone setting, and the result was a thicker running time, but the bloat was at least seamlessly edited into the movie. In Gangs of New York, it feels almost like Scorsese kept trying to expand the script just because it wasn't long enough. Gangs of New York is almost three hours long, but the character of Jenny is just there for decoration and, after Amsterdam's initial attempt at Bill falls through, he makes a few more tries before finally wiping Bill off the face of the Earth. One tries to use politics, with the help of history's favorite crooked politician, Boss Tweed. When that blows over, Amsterdam decides to resort to violence again, this time using the method the resulted in Priest getting killed in the first place.
Strip away all the unnecessary length extensions and we're looking at a gangster movie that's there and done in under two hours. It wouldn't have even been very hard to cut out the fat and still keep in the interesting historical elements. Scorsese has never been one to take the easy road, but a lot of Gangs of New York feels like he's trying to build his own road through the Himalayas. It's easy to get lost in Gangs of New York if you can ignore the padded length, but once the movie ends, it's also easy to remember how bloated it gets to be.