Finally got around to seeing Gangs of New York and thought it was surprisingly pretty great. Not DiCaprio's best performance, Diaz is "just" okay (but rather convincing instead of distracting), and the story is nothing special, but I think a lot of the criticisms along this line are failing to recognize that the film is aiming for something more ambitious and unconventional than a typical Hollywood historical epic. Granted, because of studio interference it doesn't completely succeed at this, but it does well enough that in its best moments the film is as powerful as anything Scorsese has done. With its immersive textures and incredible sets, it has a real sense of place and space that most of Scorsese's other films don't really have. (Sure, Taxi Driver paints a vivid picture of mid-70s NYC, but films like Goodfellas, Wolf of Wall Street, King of Comedy, The Aviator, The Departed, The Color of Money and Cape Fear, for example, are far more concentrated on their characters than their environments; OTOH, Casino does give us a beautiful sense of the titular space, and After Hours has a very tangible sense of location in its use of that small stretch of SoHo. Films like Bringing Out the Dead and Mean Streets probably fall somewhere in between these two poles). And so Gangs's typical revenge/romance narrative thankfully becomes less important in the second half, and we get a series of stunning set-pieces anchored purely by visual bravado, by electrifying (yet subdued for Scorsese) editing patterns and incredible production design. The conclusion's rather too pat and feels rushed, but all in all I really think this is one of his better films, if not among the absolute best just by nature of its messiness and more cliche'd moments.
I'd kill to see the original October 2001 cut, though, as from what I've heard it really goes further in the direction of trading a typical narrative POV for an omniscient, immersive experience. In a way, this film is like Scorsese's experiment in "spatial film," as a favorite critic of mine argued -- akin to similar experiments around this time like Spielberg's The Terminal or Fincher's Panic Room. One of the masters of this kind of filmmaking is Brian De Palma, and though a film like Gangs superficially has more in common with Cimino, Visconti, Kubrick and Coppola than De Palma, I think the film's reach for a kind of three-dimensional spatial immersion in a particular place reminds of that director's consistent ability to do just that. Again, Scorsese doesn't completely succeed, but when he does it's pretty stunning (thinking here of everything from the rigged election onward, a stream of terrific set-pieces).