If you are anything like me, then you’ve been spending a great deal of time reading trashy Hollywood gossip rags that have been detailing the Leo DiCaprio Christmastime movie hubbub. What’s the hubbub, you ask? Well, let me take you back a few years to 1998, better known as “Leo Mania.” Still fresh off of his success in “Titanic,” the whole world (mainly teen-age girls and housewives) was waiting for Leo’s next move. That move was “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Then in 1999, he followed with “The Beach,” a forgettable picture starring Leo and a bunch of forgettable people. Fast-forward to 2002, nearly three years since America’s favorite body-hairless son has graced the big screen. Believe it or not, two different studios are releasing a new Leo movie on the same day, Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can” and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.” So that’s the whole hubbub question: Who will win the box office race? Who cares? I’m sure they’ll both do just fine.
Besides, “Gangs of New York” seems more important as a comeback for legendary director Martin Scorsese, whose last film, 1999’s “Bringing Out the Dead,” bombed both critically and commercially. Before that was “Kundun,” which I think everybody forgot about. Technically, Scorsese hasn’t had a hit since “Casino” seven years ago. “Gangs of New York” probably won’t be a blockbuster, but it does mark the return of Martin Scorsese.
Set in 1863, the film is set against the backdrop of Civil War hysteria. Just as in Vietnam, many people didn’t feel an obligation to fight in the war, and the film captures the violent protests and uses this whole clash of two sides to parallel the fight going on between the rival street gangs in New York.
The first thing that struck me about “Gangs” was the blood. The code of the streets calls for no guns in combat; therefore it’s only knives and clubs. In a pure Scorsese scene, the two gangs first meet in a snow-covered field that is quickly turned to dirty-looking red.
The violence is graphic but necessary, in a war movie kind of way. The plot mirrors that of the classic kung fu or western film, in which the son has come back to avenge the father’s death. While sitting in the theater, I couldn’t get out of my head this idea that Scorsese was purposefully telling an 1860’s immigrant story in the style of a classic western.
I only had a few complaints about “Gangs of New York,” the main one being the purpose of the love interest. It seems to me that Cameron Diaz really served no important role in the story and her involvement seemed more a last-minute Hollywood decision than a crucial role. You watch and make the call. My only other complaint is that I don’t buy Leo as a tough guy. He doesn’t even seem in Daniel Day-Lewis’s league, and at times it’s just hard to buy that he’s the toughest kid in the streets. Other than that, “Gangs of New York” did what a good movie is supposed to do, it actually made me think a bit. Not about life or anything dramatic like that, but about the picture and what it meant, what Scorsese was trying to say about immigration and the Civil War, and why the characters did what they did. To me, that’s the best kind of film, the one that doesn’t throw all the answers in your face, but leaves hints all throughout the picture.
So don’t let Leo’s silly looking thin beard scare you, this movie is a lot better than it looks. The hubbub really exists for no real reason, since these two Leo pictures couldn’t be more opposite. “Gangs of New York” offers a look into a time period that is usually overlooked by Hollywood, unless it’s a Civil War film or a western. This movie is neither, it’s a look at the real people, granted the criminal element, but the real people that will eventually make up the Civil War battalions and what they did to survive and to make ends meet. Besides, it’s a lot better than that “Dead Poets Society 2” Kevin Kline thing.