Film review

Street Fighting Men

DIRECTED BY Martin Scorsese

STARRING Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson

Opens January 10, Cert 15 tbc, 162 mins

After all the hope, hype and rumours of conflict during production, it's a relief that what could've been Scorsese's Heaven's Gate works, and works well. After relief, the next thing you feel is awe. There's just so much in it. Long as it is, you soon want to see it again (without the pressure of oh-god-what-if-it's a-turkey). You want to check whether those many subtle references to the director's own canon were really there. To see how he's managed to tick all the Weinsteins' boxes (echoes of Titanic and Gladiator? Check!) without nullifying his art and vision. How he's made bold, dark statements about religion, politics, violence (of course) and the history of his beloved city without capsizing a 'vengeance-shall-be-mine' ripping yarn. The money's on the screen, but so's Scorsese (literally, in one brief Hitchcockian cameo). It's great.

This despite the fact that he's operating away from the milieu we think of when we say his name. The mean streets here are a world (and a century and a half) away from yellow cabs and hissing manholes. The adversaries aren't motivated by modern malaise. And while Gangs is a more vicious, angry, blood-spattered beast than the slightly prissy The Age Of Innocence, it's a history lesson rather than a howl of urban protest. Yet we're forced to use the phrase "history comes to life". You're hurled into a mad, sick, tormented world of pain. That there's plenty of contemporary relevance (racism, riots) is exemplified by corrupt politico Broadbent on the pivotal election day: "The ballots don't make the results. The counters make the results. Keep counting." There's more than enough here to prove Scorsese still counts.

The story, in brief: in 1860s lower Manhattan, the Civil War underway, young Irish-American Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio) emerges from a reform house, tosses his Bible into the river and hunts out Bill The Butcher (Day-Lewis), a domineering anti-immigrant gang leader who, 16 years ago, killed Vallon's father. Vallon's bent on revenge, but first infiltrates his way into Bill's inner circle. The law's a joke, stabbings are rife, feuding fire brigades bicker as houses burn down. Vallon thrives as a bad boy (Bill warms to him), then stuns himself by saving Bill's life, after which a strange, shaky father-son relationship grows between the two, despite the fact that the pupil's sleeping with the master's former mistress, plucky pickpocket-whore Jenny (Diaz).

Wrestling with his Hamlet-heavy demons, Vallon eventually breaks cover, but Bill's not easily bruised, and now all hell rains down. With the pair symbolising 'foreign hordes' and 'natives' respectively, the ensuing hatred and rage is painted with operatic violence by Scorsese, who kicks into visual overdrive. The costumes may be different but the climax is as breathless as that of GoodFellas, the bitterness as bilious as Raging Bull. Emotionally, it's Italian. This is Scorsese, remember, not James Cameron. In the midst of blazing street warfare, an elephant escaped from Barnum's Museum gallops by. A Fellini moment amid the mayhem.

The screenplay—by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan—is tremendous: it takes an instinctive sidestep when any blockbuster cliché looms, and gives Bill some uproarious insults to snarl. Gangs may not be perfect: it takes a while to adjust to some of the self-conscious Oirishry, and the music (by Howard Shore and Robbie Robertson) cloys a little. The Vallon-Jenny love story is vivid on the surface (fights, bites, eye contact) but leaps from lust to an assumed longevity. Yet a sullen, brooding DiCaprio doesn't falter, and Diaz has, against the odds given her distracting beauty, become a consummate leading lady. Pros like Gleeson, Broadbent, Neeson and John C Reilly (plus Henry Thomas as the Judas of the piece) are very strong. If there's an opinion-divider, it's Day-Lewis.

His Bill—at first you think of Dick Dastardly—takes huge, camp risks. He's showing off (after a mystique-buying absence of years), teetering on the precipice of panto-villain parody. Yet at times he is terrifying, evil incarnate. Knives are to him what fists were to LaMotta. His overt riffing on De Niro's Rupert Pupkin mannerisms ("whoopsy-daisy", he mugs as he throws knives at Diaz) is either genius or uncalled-for gall.

"I don't give a tuppeny fuck for your moral conundrums," he rasps, but immediately, and consistently, we do. In a film of autumnal colours, Scorsese's obsessions are wildly aflame.

Big, brilliant, brutal and beautiful.

Rating: 4 / 10


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