First, let me say that even a Scorcese near miss is more interesting, more challenging than 95% of Hollywood “successes.” As a director, Scorcese is always pondering the deep questions about human existence & presenting it onscreen in a terribly compelling way.
In Gangs he set out to make a great epic on a scale w. the David Lean films like Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia . No question, the cinematography is extraordinary. You feel you are right in the midst of the streets of old New York, a place that once was but will never be again. You can almost smell the food fr. the stalls, smell the horse dung in the streets, etc. So Scorcese succeeds in establishing the tone of the great epic films. But what about characterization & plot? Here he falls down in my opinion.
Yes, Cutting is an extraordinary character–totally compelling & riveting for every moment he is onscreen. He is the film’s anchor. But where are the other characters? Di Caprio is miscast in his role as a sullen youth seeking to avenge his father’s murder. Nothing compelling about his performance at all. And Cameron Diaz, beautiful, touching Cameron–where is her character in all this? Almost never to be found I’m afraid. She has a few good scenes, but then Scorcese seems to tire of her & she disappears for the rest of the movie. Too bad.
Other problems: in my opinion, the real drama here is not the rivalry between the two gangs; but rather the Civil War & Draft Riots raging through NYC & the nation, simultaneously to the gang violence. Scorcese does provide some background on the rising level of ethnic & class tension in the city. But he doesn’t connect the Civil War to the action at all. And the Battle of Gettysburg took place only ONE WEEK before the Draft Riots. All Federal troops dispatched frantically to New York came directly from Gettysburg! Scorcese focuses on hatred between ‘Know Nothing’ German immigrants & Irish Catholic immigrants. But the hatred and violence shown to Blacks was more severe, more lethal & should have been acknowledged more seriously. After all, the Draft Rioters focused their most serious vehemence against Blacks (not whites…not even immigrants) who were murdered & humiliated in horribly disfiguring ways.
Why doesn’t someone do a film about the Draft Riots? That would be a great drama.