Gruesome, Never Gratuitous, Gangs of New York Rings True

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York , from a screenplay by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, based on a story by Jay Cocks, was reportedly inspired by Herbert Asbury’s 1928 chronicle Gangs of New York , which Mr. Scorsese read more than 30 years ago, much later sharing his enthusiasm for the book as a movie project with a screenwriter-friend, Mr. Cocks. The result reverberates on the screen with a deadly force and fury more intense than anything Mr. Scorsese has yet achieved on the meanest and most beloved streets he could imagine or recall.

The film has been much criticized for playing fast and loose with the historical facts of the period-mostly the 1860’s-and the milieu: the Five Points neighborhood in lower Manhattan. Still, I don’t imagine that the subject would ever have been tackled in the first place by a filmmaker less emotionally involved in the material than Mr. Scorsese was. Hence, I owe him a debt of gratitude for making the film at this whiny time, when too many people keep babbling about how New Yorkers have “lost their innocence” since 9/11.

Gangs of New York begins with an extended and massive battle scene that embroils rival gangs of nativist anti-Catholic and Irish-Catholic immigrant persuasions. The setting is ostensibly the lower-Manhattan cauldron of poverty, crime and bigotry known as the Five Points, circa 1846, but the primitive weaponry of the combatants-i.e., axes, knives, swords and clubs-gives the spectacle a medieval look and sound. Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995), with its Scot/Brit brouhaha, springs to mind as the Five Points’ Hibernian gang, the Dead Rabbits-led by Liam Neeson’s Priest Vallon-confront the dominant Protestant hordes led by Daniel Day-Lewis’ charismatically rendered William (Bill the Butcher) Cutting. On a more personal level, the battle also evokes Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), as a child-young Amsterdam Vallon (Cian McCormack)-watches his father die at the hands and blade of Bill the Butcher and vows to avenge him. But once Mr. Scorsese and his collaborators plunge into the history and sociology of the Five Points 16 years later, in the midst of the Civil War, Gangs of New York becomes too multifaceted to deliver either Mr. Gibson’s ethnic fervor or Leone’s visually focused emotionalism.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s grown-up Amsterdam Fallon successfully insinuates himself into Bill the Butcher’s confidence as well as his gang, but Amsterdam’s growing fascination with his father’s slayer seems to weaken, Hamlet-like, his resolve to have his revenge. I don’t know what happened during the writing and shooting of the film, but somewhere along the line, Mr. Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher became the Claudius who steals the show from Mr. DiCaprio’s Hamlet.

Both characters enjoy the favors of the voluptuous pickpocket Jenny Everdeane, played with rugged good-sport zest by Cameron Diaz, probably a bigger box-office name these days after Charlie’s Angels than either Mr. DiCaprio or Mr. Day-Lewis. Still, there is somewhat too much ambiguity and complexity in the development of the major characters and their various causes for the morally simplistic, Manichean demands of popular epics with clearly defined heroes and villains.

This is not to say that Mr. Scorsese’s mise en scène is ever less than ravishing in his nightmarish recreation of the Five Points frenzies through Dante Ferretti’s marvelous production design, which uses sets built from scratch in Rome’s Cinecitta studios. One is made to feel trapped in a past from which there is no escape, as parochial gang history collides explosively with textbook American history in the climactic, infamous draft riots of 1863, which illuminated both the racial bigotry of the Irish against the blacks, in the hideous form of several lynchings, and the underlying injustice of rich men being allowed-by the government of Abraham Lincoln, no less-to buy their way out of the draft for $300, an unattainable sum for the potato-famine-driven Irish immigrants. It’s been rumored that the going price for the National Guard billets that allowed the draft-dodging plutocrats of George W. Bush’s generation to avoid Vietnam was $5,000 dollars-a reasonable escalation for a century’s worth of inflation.

The riots themselves and their brutal suppression mark a bloody chapter in the history of both New York City and the nation. It remains to be seen if audiences with any trace of historical curiosity are large enough to make Gangs of New York at least break even. But with bellwether young moviegoers seemingly uninterested in the 1960’s, it’s hard to see how a movie about the 1860’s will drag them away from their shiny new video games.

For the rest of us, Gangs of New York is never less than interesting, and very often exciting and absorbing. Its violence is sometimes gruesome, but never gratuitous. Ultimately, it is where we were once upon a time in the promised land we call America, and it would be very grown-up for us to remember it. The film is aided immeasurably in its watchability by the persuasive character performances of Jim Broadbent as the cynical and corrupt Boss Tweed, John C. Reilly as the Irish-American turncoat cop in an anti-Irish municipal administration, Brendan Gleason as an Irish-American political martyr and David Hemmings as a hypocritically compassionate conservative of the time.

Timely Superficiality

Rob Marshall’s Chicago , from a screenplay by Bill Condon, has been freely adapted from the 1975 musical play Chicago , directed and choreographed for the stage by Bob Fosse, with music by John Kander and lyrics by Fred Ebb. Maurine Dallas Watkins wrote the original play in 1926 with the title The Brave Little Woman , which in turn inspired two movies, Frank Urson’s silent Chicago in 1927 (from a screenplay by Lenore J. Coffee, with Phyllis Haver as Roxie Hart), and William A. Wellman’s Roxie Hart in 1942 (from a screenplay by Nunnally Johnson, with Ginger Rogers in the title role).

In all its incarnations to date over the past 75 years or more, the basic story has lost none of its superficial timeliness. Indeed, celebrity murder trials for the benefit of the ravenous, media-manipulated public will probably always be with us, which is more than one can say for the Hollywood musical genre, born with the coming of sound in the late 20’s and flourishing in the 30’s through the 50’s, only to virtually vanish in recent decades-mainly because of the growing importance to Hollywood’s bottom line of foreign markets, to which American musicals do not travel well.

The current Chicago has been hailed by many of my colleagues as the musical that could start the moribund genre up all over again. By any standard, it is a huge improvement over Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001), a pompously overstuffed masquerade posing as a musical. Indeed, Chicago is, in many ways, an admirable achievement. It succeeded with various gambles, including the casting, adaptation and editing, which splits the presentation between the dream world and the supposedly real world, between the theater of the mind and the theater of 20’s Chicago-and, most dangerously, between musically trained though not overly experienced musical performers like Catherine Zeta-Jones, Queen Latifah and (most surprisingly of al) John C. Reilly, and comparatively amateurish though talented quick studies like Renée Zellweger and Richard Gere.

Mr. Marshall’s Chicago is a two-diva musical, with Ms. Zellweger as Roxie Hart and Ms. Zeta-Jones as Velma Kelly, Roxie’s bitter rival until they form a pairing of convenience for their final cashing-in-on-their-acquittals-for-murder number, performed to a city’s applause. But one might note, in fact, that Velma did not appear as a character in one of the two previous movies or the original play; she made her debut in Bob Fosse’s 1975 stage production, with Gwen Verdon dancing and singing the part of Roxie Hart, and Chita Rivera dancing and singing the part of Velma Kelly.

The chemistry between Ms. Zellweger and Ms. Zeta-Jones is chillier and much less convivial than that between Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell in Howard Hawks’ Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), from Charles Lederer’s screenplay, based on Anita Loos’ novel, with songs by Jule Styne and Leo Robin-consequently, Chicago is almost by definition, a musical without “heart”: an ingredient most of us need and expect in a musical, whether we choose to admit it or not. Roxie and Velma are both terminally selfish and self-absorbed, with hungry, needy egos that play better on Broadway’s brittle, hypersophisticated stages than on the world’s silver screens.

Here, a curious paradox comes into play in the iconic interaction between Ms. Zellweger and Ms. Zeta-Jones. Though Ms. Zeta-Jones has been an attractively full-bodied beauty in her previous roles, she has never generated much warmth or feeling. She is thus perfectly cast as Velma. Ms. Zellweger is a different story entirely, as she has parlayed her deepest feelings with only moderate good looks to win the hearts of audiences. Fortunately, she is not without wit and irony to soften the sheer bitchiness of her character in Chicago . Yet her cruelty to her husband-played with nebbishy nobility by Mr. Reilly-makes her less than sympathetic. The point is that the Monroe and Russell characters really liked each other, and that’s one reason their union has remained so memorable. You must see Chicago nonetheless, if only to see what I mean and possibly disagree with me.

Delightful Dickens

Douglas McGrath’s Nicholas Nickleb y, from his own screenplay, based on the novel by Charles Dickens, happily turns out to be truer to the Christmas spirit than all the Santa Claus movies put together. It’s a lean but not anemic Nickleby that Mr. McGrath has fashioned from the 816-page Dickens novel, keeping the central narrative joyously and movingly engaging. The film is enriched by an imaginatively mixed cast of antic spirits, headed by Christopher Plummer as the subtlest and most complexly evil Uncle Ralph I’ve ever seen in the many film and stage adaptations of the work. Not far behind are Jamie Bell as the ill-fated Smike; Jim Broadbent as the sadistic Wackford Squeers; Juliet Stevenson as the frightful Mrs. Squeers; Tom Courtenay as the drunken but ever-helpful clerk, Newman Noggs; Nathan Lane as the deliciously hammy theatrical impresario, Vincent Crummles; Barry Humphries (a.k.a. Dame Edna Everage) as Mrs. Crummles; Timothy Spall as one of the Cheeryble twins, Edward Fox as the lecherous Sir Mulberry Hawk; and Alan Cumming as a more honorable aristocrat, Mr. Folair.

The comparatively “straight” parts of Nicholas Nickleby himself (Charlie Hunnan), his beloved Madeline Bray (Anne Hathaway), his destitute mother (Stella Gonet) and his beleaguered sister Kate (Romola Garai) are less imposingly performed than those of the eccentrics, but Dickens was always more comfortable and creative with his wry creatures than with his “white-bread” heroes and heroines.

Hitler’s Youth

Menno Meyjes’ Max , from his own screenplay, takes us to Munich in 1918, when two returning, defeated German veterans-one fictional, a wealthy Jewish art dealer named Max Rothman (John Cusak), and the other a 30-year-old aspiring painter named Adolf Hitler-meet and become temporarily involved with each other at what turns out to be a pivotal moment in world history. The “what-ifs” involved have offended some people, but I found the movie fascinating for its subtext about art and politics, then as now.