25 February 2006 | bob the moo
The narrative and characters are weak but the general sweep and spectacle of the whole thing makes it worth a look
In the 1840's New York is a mess of gangs all fighting over small areas of turf. The main rivalry is between the immigrant Irish and those who see themselves as Natives of their New York. A battle rages between them and the leader of the Irish (Priest Vallon) falls to the blade of Bill "The Butcher" Cutting witnessed by Vallon's young son. Sixteen years later and things are different but no better. Cutting is now the head of the Five Corners and all the gangs answer to him. It is into this situation that an unknown man called Amsterdam returns none other than the grown son of Priest Vallon. Seeking a fitting revenge for the death of his father, Amsterdam makes sure he catches Cutting's sole eye and gradually is taken into his trust.
Despite lukewarm reviews I decided that any Scorsese film is worth a look and gave GoNY a night of my time. In terms of plotting the film is essentially a revenge drama that sees Vallon trying to get close enough to Cutting to take him out in a fashion befitting the man. You might rightly point out that such a straightforward tale does not require 180 minutes to tell but it does when the film tries to make this much more of a sprawling affair that aims to bridge the cinematic gap between the western and the gangster films while also painting a rich tapestry of characters against a rich background of 19th Century New York. However it fails to do this on several levels and the end result is a film that feels a lot baggier than it really should have done. This is best seen in the characters because none of them really develop beyond the first impressions they give, or a better example is the failure of the film to use Jenny in the critical way that she was clearly intended to be used.
Scorsese may lose his way with the story but it is easy to forgive him because he does so well with the majestic historical sweep he gives to everything else. The sets look great, the costumes look great and the dramatic flair he gives in delivery add so much. It is a real problem that he has not taken the characters and story along for the ride but I found his silver lining to be enjoyable even if his rather OTT approach did further take away from the realism of the people and the story. His approach is matched by the cast, who are mostly enjoyable despite lacking depth. DiCaprio is more than the bland pinup I had feared he would be but he can't do much more than play the "silent revenge" card from start to finish. He is overwhelmed by Day-Lewis who has great fun in a fantastically OTT role that worked much better than I expected him to. Diaz is not that good and I felt she was miscast in an attempt to get "credibility" by working with Scorsese. The support cast is roundly good and features solid turns from Neeson, Reilly, Gleeson and many others fill out a strong cast.
Overall this is an impressive film in terms of sweep and style but not in terms of story and characters which is a bit of a problem in a film that pretty much lasts three hours. The skill of Scorsese and the presence of so many stars make it worth a look but it is hard to get past the problems in the way that the story is not as well done as it could have been, even if the general historical sweep and spectacle makes it worth taking a look at.