It’s time to officially uncouple the word “gritty” from Martin Scorsese’s name. Though the director’s last fiction film, Bringing Out the Dead, was a sort of East Coast gangsta update of Mother, Jugs & Speed, such opulent recent pictures as Kundun and The Age of Innocence have carried Scorsese far from the mean-streets style of his earlier work. Now Gangs of New York returns the filmmaker to his old neighborhood, but almost a century before he or former alter ego Robert De Niro was born. An epic look at gang war—a Scorsese obsession for 30 years—the film is brutal and raw, yet its vibe is less Raging Bull than Rigoletto. Indeed, to recapture Gangs of New York’s turbulent chapter of Manhattan history, Scorsese had to go to Rome.
The movie begins in 1846, with a ritualistic showdown between a born-in-the-U.S.A. gang and the Dead Rabbits, an Irish-immigrant posse whose name is a corruption of the Gaelic phrase dod ráibéid (“violent hulk”). The two factions are battling for control of the Five Points, a notorious slum on what is now the southern edge of Chinatown (not far from Little Italy, Scorsese’s childhood home). The preparations for the fight and the bloody melee that follows suggest the hordes of Alexander Nevsky and Conan the Barbarian invading the set of David Copperfield, but the focus here—and throughout the film—is not on the swarming masses but on a confrontation between two men. As heavy-metal guitar struts on the soundtrack, cleaver-wielding nativist leader William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) brings down the Rabbits’ leader, “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson). The incident is narrated by Vallon’s grown-up son, Amsterdam, who’s a young boy when he watches Bill finish his father with a knife thrust to the heart.
Sixteen years later, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) is released from the Hellgate House of Reform and returns to the Five Points. Despite Bill’s campaign against it, Irish immigration continues apace, and the atmosphere only has become more volatile with the outbreak of the Civil War. Such former Rabbits as Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), and Johnny (Henry Thomas) have all been drawn into Bill’s orbit. So have power broker William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent)—like Cutting, a fictionalized true-life figure—and saucy pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), who becomes Amsterdam’s obligatory unconvincing love interest. Amsterdam insinuates himself as Bill’s protégé, biding his time until the inevitable moment when he reveals himself as Priest’s son and attempts to kill the Butcher. For maximum mock-historical hysteria, Scorsese stages the two men’s final confrontation during the 1863 New York City anti-draft riots.
The nearly three-hour film can be summarized so quickly because it’s something less than the chronicle of an era. Scorsese and original scripter Jay Cocks were inspired by Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York, yet in the process of bringing that 1928 book’s history to the screen, they (and subsequent rewriters Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan) came to emphasize only three people, two of them entirely fictional. Though DiCaprio and Diaz both seem out of their depth in a period film, the former’s presence is oddly appropriate: Scorsese has essentially taken the Titanic approach to historical drama, spotlighting two plucky lovers as the nearly faceless masses accept their doom in the background.
Whereas Titanic was a disaster flick, however, Gangs of New York is more akin to an opera. Add a few songs and it could be a long-running London musical. Produced by Alberto Grimaldi, whose credits include 1900 and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the movie was shot entirely on sets constructed at Cinecittà studios. The result is lush, fanciful, and implausible: Scorsese’s vision of 1860s New York as a lawless frontier town is ladled atop a pile of spaghetti Western. Most of the Five Pointers are cold, hungry, and dirty, but their neighborhood is rich in spectacle: A remarkably well-appointed Beijing Opera troupe performs at the local opium den, and around the corner a mix of Irish and African-American musicians invent Celtic rock. (The soundtrack also features such latter-day exponents of the genre as U2 and Afro-Celt Sound System.) Even the violence is lavish: As Scorsese depicts them, the New York draft riots seem to have produced roughly as many casualties as the battle of Stalingrad. “We never knew how many New Yorkers died,” Amsterdam solemnly declaims, but in Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, Edwin G. Burrows and Mike Wallace report that the confirmed body count was a mere 119.
Gangs of New York isn’t the first movie to hype history, of course, and it’s admirably candid about some of the darker events of its tale, notably the lynchings of African-Americans by draft rioters. The tale’s authentically grim aspects are offset, however, by the overall sense of unreality conjured by its stagy look and DiCaprio and Diaz’s weightless performances, as well as Day-Lewis’ wildly mannered one. Like Kundun and even Casino, this narrative-impaired yet eye-popping film can be relished as sheer pageantry, but it won’t do much for Scorsese’s street cred.
Sent to a military psychiatrist after getting into a brawl, U.S. Navy seaman Antwone Fisher is informed that he will get only three sessions to uncover the source of his seething inner rage. That’s ridiculous, of course. As Antwone Fisher demonstrates, it takes seven or eight sessions with a tough but empathetic shrink to banish the shadows of a nightmarish childhood completely.
In his first movie role, Derek Luke plays the troubled Fisher, who’s been fictionalized for Hollywood by himself: Fisher wrote the screenplay, which is officially credited as being “inspired” by his life. The result is the sort of earnest, edifying, purportedly real-life drama that routinely attracts Denzel Washington (see Glory, The Hurricane, and Remember the Titans), who plays psychiatrist Jerome Davenport. This time, though, Washington made an even bigger commitment: Antwone Fisher is his directorial debut.
Introduced as a young boy in a wish-fulfillment dream sequence, Fisher is a tormented but likable young sailor stationed in San Diego. While making his trips to Davenport’s office to confront the lingering pain of having been abandoned by his mother and abused by his foster family, Fisher is sufficiently composed to pursue the woman of his dreams, Navy bookstore clerk Cheryl (model-actress Joy Bryant). Fisher is all too quickly transformed from angry loner into well-adjusted family man, with the doc and his wife, Berta Davenport (Salli Richardson), as surrogate parents and Cheryl as devoted helpmate. She accompanies Fisher when he complies with the shrink’s decree that he must return to Cleveland and confront his past. The trip proves both harrowing and heartwarming—and a lot more emotionally persuasive than a contrived subplot about the Davenports’ own submerged trauma.
Next to that sequence, the rest of Antwone Fisher looks glib and overly tidy: Each childhood horror is summoned neatly and quickly disarmed. Washington shows no particular flair for composition, so his decision to shoot the film in a widescreen format is inexplicable. However, the director and his collaborators do show commendable restraint in conjuring powerful sentiments. Rather than swamp the emotional breakthroughs with sugary strings, for example, composer Mychael Danna uses impressionist piano and a gamelan quartet. Though it’s clear that the movie is headed for a weepy payoff, Antwone Fisher is a far less manipulative tearjerker than it could have been.
The climactic filial restoration is somewhat stickier in Evelyn, another “based on a true story” drama. This film is derived from the 1954 case of Dublin painter/decorator Desmond Doyle (Pierce Brosnan), who set a legal precedent by recovering custody of his three children from the sort of church-government conspiracy once common in Anglican and Catholic domains. According to Brosnan, who co-produced the movie, he was attracted to Paul Pender’s script because of its “jauntiness.” As filmed by Australian hack Bruce Beresford, however, the tale’s jauntiness consists of reducing most of the performances to one-note schtick.
Unemployed, hard-drinking Desmond loses Evelyn, Dermot, and Maurice after their mother escapes the family’s Fatima Mansions flat to head to Australia with her “fancy man.” When his mother-in-law informs the authorities that the kids are now motherless, a judge orders them turned over to nun-run orphanages. Outraged in a jaunty sort of way, Desmond quits the drink and starts enlisting allies, including barmaid (and obligatory unconvincing love interest) Bernadette Beattie (Julianna Margulies) and a trio of twinkly lawyers, Michael Beattie (Stephen Rea), Nick Barron (Aidan Quinn), and Tom Connolly (Alan Bates). At Desmond’s urging, the three take the case all the way to the Irish Supreme Court, where the day is really won by solemn, quick-witted Evelyn (Sophie Vavasseur), who sweetly rebukes a dissembling nun and cuts off the government’s lawyer at the knees.
Evelyn offers the County Meath-born Brosnan a chance to play a salt-of-the-earth Irish working man rather than a shaken-not-stirred English superhero. Desmond is a bit of a bumbler, but one whose miscalculations are more in the spirit of vaudeville than tragedy; he’s forever falling down, getting punched out, or being chased by dogs. Meanwhile, Beresford, whose previous accomplishments include Breaker Morant’s lengthy courtroom scene, goes heavy on the Irish charm, from warm-hearted bookies to Desmond’s enthusiastic performances of folk standards with a pub band led by his grand old dad. Indeed, all of Desmond’s friends and supporters are so adorable that you’ll wonder just what misbegotten genetic experiment produced the grim creatures who attempt to thwart the family reunion. CP