Gangs of New York is as lopsided as a peg-legged, booze-slurping transient navigating a rickety escalator in some urban shopping mall.
Granted, director Martin Scorsese is a genius whose body of work will live lifetimes beyond anything my inferior a*s will ever create, and the alienated poetry of “Taxi Driver” will leave a permanent imprint on my heart. The man who tossed us into “Raging Bull”’s boxing ring and kicked us out of “Goodfellas”’ door to the strains of Sid Vicious is a brilliant cinematic visionary. No argument there.
Even so, was I the only scribe sensing that the director’s Gangs was more than a tad off-balance, like a rough-riding Cadillac with its wheels out of alignment?
Pondering this unsettled state for several days after the film’s screening, I finally came up with a reason for my conflicted, less-than-enthusiastic feelings for the flamboyant epic.
Gangs of New York boasts a villain that completely and utterly dominates the film’s other characters.
Daniel Day Lewis plays Bill the Butcher as a frightening alpha male decked out in handlebar moustache, top hat, and eagle-emblazoned glass eye. Like a dapper waiter at Farrell’s Ice Cream Parlor who goes postal and slashes his supervisor, Lewis’ leonine, fiercely competitive ruler of the Five Points is an unpredictable bully destined to go down in history as one of the great movie villains of all time.
Consequently, his co-stars are completely upstaged. Leonardo DiCaprio? Who cares! We want Bill! Cameron Diaz? A lightweight. Get Bill back on the screen to make heads roll! Everything else in “Gangs of New York” comes secondary to Day Lewis’ hypnotic, charismatic maniac.
Ultimately, the film pays a price. We’re so distracted by this sensational character that the movie’s other elements become muted and irrelevant. As Leonard Maltin once observed in his critique of “Batman,” “There’s something askew when the villain is so much more potent than the hero.”
This Overpowering Villain Syndrome is nothing new. A recap of recent rascals, rogues, and wretches on film allows us to pay tribute to those evil bastards who insist on winning every cinematic pissing contest they enter – while leaving co-stars choking in the dust.
“Last of the Mohicans” – There was a day when Daniel Day Lewis struggled to hold his own against other thespians. Angry that General Gray Hair has pillaged his village, tough hombre Mogwai promises, “When I put your children under the knife, it will stop your seed forever.” Wes Studi is perhaps the only actor on record to upstage Day Lewis, as the ticked-off Huron who cuts hearts from chests and prompts children to jump off of cliffs to avoid suffering his wrath.
The Patriot – Jason Isaacs’ Satanic Redcoat doesn’t even wince after gunning down patriot Mel Gibson’s innocent moppet son. Sneering, snarling, and wielding his sword like a machete, this repugnant Briton isn’t beyond burning down a church full of trapped worshipers. All in a good day’s work.
Hannibal – A smorgasbord of psychos. Take your pick – whether it’s Sir Anthony gutting detectives and serving up the kind of Gray Poupon you don’t find at Safeway, or Ray Liotta’s oily, slime-slathered FBI agent whispering come-ons to Julianne Moore like a perverted Dean Martin.
“Under Siege” – Back when Steven Seagal was actually capable of making a good movie, the pony-tailed putz still couldn’t hold a candle to Tommy Lee Jones playing a life-of-the-party terrorist who launches nukes at Hawaii with the spirited enthusiasm of a rave DJ at a New Year’s celebration.
Planet of the Apes – Watching a wooden, stillborn Mark Wahlberg get the crap kicked out of him by Tim Roth’s militant, human-hating ape is the one guilty pleasure to be garnered from Tim Burton’s inferior remake.
The Green Mile In one of the few recent Tom Hanks roles in which the leading man was passed over for an Oscar nomination, his noble jailer is antagonized by Doug Hutchison’s twitchy, insecure sadist. In this tale of penitentiary guards and supernatural twists, Hutchison’s evil orderly deep-fries Michel Jeter’s poor death row inmate with an electric chair execution gone terribly awry.
The Salton Sea – Playing a redneck drug dealer whose coke-ravaged nose is in worse shape than Michael Jackson’s, Vincent D’Onofrio keeps cow brain snacks in the refrigerator and threatens to emasculate traitors with the help of a flesh-hungry varmint caged up in a back room.
Training Day – Ethan Hawke’s runty, novice policeman is no match for a ferocious Denzel Washington playing his cunning, double-crossing mentor. Tricked into smoking PCP and thrown to some vicious gang wolves, Hawke is like a pathetic mouse being pawed by a savvy, corrupt cougar.
Audition – The pick of the lethal litter, meek-mannered Asami is a timid Japanese actress who takes lonely widower Aoyama on the date of a lifetime. Like an anonymous wallflower morphing into a roaring she-beast, Eihi Shiina plays the deadliest femme fatale ever immortalized on film. You’ll shy away from cheese cutting wires and acupuncture needles forever after screening “Audition.”