Religious warfare spilling out onto the streets of a fractured America should be a fantastic draw for the great actors of the early 2000s. It was. Gangs of New York has such a strong cast to it and a great director behind it, Martin Scorsese. It is a bold and brash piece that features all the typical treatises and topics of a period piece that sets the Catholic and Protestant forces against one another on the streets of America. Scorsese is keen to guide that scope with some incredible casting choices and a knack for knowing how to handle that. Smooth the egos, set up the right levels of screentime and capture captivating performances from actors getting to grips with a thick and promising screenplay.
Cracks begin to show from time to time. The unbearable weight of Gangs of New York is the clustered ensemble clamouring for screentime. Liam Neeson is pushed out of the way early on, leaving the up-and-comer Leonardo DiCaprio to spar with Academy Award winner Daniel Day-Lewis. In hindsight, it is a formidable pairing of two greats of the screen, but neither can muster up the greatest courage for their work here. Day-Lewis’ dedication to the role of Bill the Butcher, vaguely based on William Poole, is tremendous. All of his performances carry that intensity and weightiness to them and it sets him on that inevitable pedestal ahead of the rest. That effect very nearly tanks Gangs of New York, primarily because Day-Lewis is keen and easily able to outshine most of the other performers.
A shame, considering the length of time Scorsese covers is more than enough to offer depth and weighty prose to the rest of the cast. Brendan Gleeson fares well as the typically tough Walter McGinn, whose reformation from when audiences first see him to when they are dragged into the future is a damning and convincing turn of character. John C. Reilly does not fare as well but that may be the lack of interaction he is offered in those sporadic moments when the camera can break from DiCaprio or Day-Lewis. When it does, the treats littered throughout, primarily Jim Broadbent, Cameron Diaz and the aforementioned Gleeson, are steady hands to be left with.
What Gangs of New York often struggles with is the ambition of the director and the stack of ideas he hopes to whittle through. There is not enough scope given to the antagonist and protagonist, yet when they do collide there is tension and electricity there like no other. It is a shame these set designs and splashes of solid iconography are wasted since there is nothing quite like Gangs of New York. It is big and impressive, lavish and exceedingly dedicated to painting a grim and dark underbelly of working criminals brushing past politicians and honour, but Scorsese loses focus and fails to provide the alternative these heroic winners are aiming for. The back and forth of good and evil is fine enough, but what is their aim apart from the destruction of one another? Control is a decent reason, but it never resonates well enough with Gangs of New York.