A load of raging bull

Film - Philip Kerr on an epic disappointment from Martin Scorsese

What is an epic? Many of us, when attempting to answer this question in the context of cinema, would probably feel happy to call on Lord Clark's famously vague definition of civilisation with which he began his television series of the same name back in 1972: "I know it when I see it." But, sadly, "epic" is a word much debased by film publicists who wouldn't know an epic from their elbows; and, doubtless, the average film fan could furnish ersatz examples of the genre such as Star Wars or Titanic.

For a film to count properly as an epic, there has to be a heroic aspect to the story - and I don't just mean that the film has to have a hero. No, the hero has to do something heroic, something extraordinary. And not just the hero but also the director, the cinematographer and the writer. Viewed in this way, it's easy to see that Lawrence of Arabia is an epic - perhaps the best ever made - but that The Bridge on the River Kwai is merely a very good war movie; why Abel Gance's Napoleon is an epic, whereas Ryan's Daughter is merely a handsomely filmed romance. A widescreen format such as Panavision, a three-hour duration and a cast that calls on the use of an eastern European army does not an epic make.

Sadly, the only thing heroic about Gangs of New York is Martin Scorsese's failure to deliver a film worthy of three years' work and $108m; and its only epic quality is its length and pompous sense of its own worth and importance. The difference between this movie and the real McCoy in the sublime shape of Lawrence of Arabia is that the latter had, in no particular order, a romantic hero played by a talented actor, a wonderful script written by two distinguished screenwriters, ravishing scenery filmed by a genius of a cameraman, and a truly memorable score. By contrast, Gangs of New York has, in Amsterdam Vallon, a hero hardly worthy of the name, played by a poor actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), in a very poor script written by a team of second-rate writers too numerous to mention, filmed in a noticeably bogus landscape (Cinecitta Studios, in Rome) with a dreadful score (U2) and edited by a blind man with a cheese knife. Anyone calling this travesty an epic should be handed the shovel and forced to bury his words.

Just about the only thing that saves this picture from being boring as well as second-rate is Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives not so much an acting performance as a music hall turn. Day-Lewis plays Bill Cutting, the film's villain, and I enjoyed him in the same way that I like to see an efficient Long John Silver. But the fact that American critics are already tipping Day-Lewis for an Oscar only seems to confirm that Americans don't know the difference between acting and histrionics, stagecraft and high camp. With his checked trousers, stove-pipe hat, twirling moustache and pantomime snarling accent, I half-expected Daniel to tie the film's heroine, Cameron Diaz, to a length of railway track. Would that he had. A train might have reminded Diaz of what better actresses than she is - which is to say nearly all of them - have done at drama school. To her role as Jenny Everdeane (more like Jenny Overdone), a pickpocket and prostitute, Diaz brings all the depth of an Amish cheerleader.

Next to Leonardo DiCaprio, however, Diaz is magisterial; at least she looks like a prostitute. DiCaprio, taking on the role of a young Irish tough guy eager to avenge the death of his father (Liam Neeson) at the knife of Bill Cutting, only manages to look like the nastiest bully in the Vienna Boys Choir. In an effort to persuade the audience that he is a real man, Leo sports a small moustache and chin beard of the sort favoured by boy bands like Westlife, but which reminded me most of Cameron Diaz wearing a set of false whiskers in Charlie's Angels. If DiCaprio is the stuff of modern heroes, then cinema is finished. Watching this uber-jugend lead a gang of savage Irish cut-throats on to the streets of New York for a major rumble was like watching the team mascot lead Arsenal on to the pitch at Highbury on a Saturday; he looks nice enough, but for God's sake, nobody ever expects the little sod to play.

The whole picture is such a mess, like a pig's liver lying in the snow, that one is moved to ask what it was about this story that ever prompted Scorsese to think it was worth turning into a hugely expensive movie? He is an immensely talented film-maker, but there is little evidence of it here. And this is his worst film since, er, the last one, Bringing out the Dead. Hugely disappointing and an epic waste of time, talent, money, sharp knives, meat, cod-Irish accents and gallons of Kensington Gore.

Gangs of New York (18) is on general release