Martin Scorsese’s Les Miserables.
Whereas his previous gangster movies took place on actual (mean) streets, Gangs of New York operatically unspools on a sprawling soundstage, and the theatricality is not always to the filmmaker’s advantage. The script—by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan—tells a multi-generational narrative about an Irish immigrant (Leonardo DiCaprio) in 1860s New York City bent on avenging the murder of his father at the hands of a ruthless gang leader (Daniel Day-Lewis), all set against a city-wide class revolt. Add diegetic period music and there are times when you expect actual production numbers to break out.
But whereas the Victor Hugo novel upon which the Les Miserables stage sensation was based is ultimately a story of personal mercy and grace amidst dramatic social upheaval, Gangs is divided between a penchant for blood and chaos and an insistence on romanticizing DiCaprio’s character. The latter impulse not only wastes a sharp Cameron Diaz in the part of an unlikely love interest, but also fails to play to DiCaprio’s strengths. (He’s almost always better as a weasel.) Still, Scorsese’s camera comes alive in the two massive melees that bookend the film, and it’s a delight to watch Day-Lewis chew DiCaprio up and then—out of deference to the screenplay and in his own act of mercy—refrain from spitting him out.