Gangs Of New York Movie Review

In the opening moments of Martin Scorsese's American history epic "Gangs of New York," a galvanized band of 19th Century Irish immigrants, armed to the teeth with axes and swords, emerges from a catacomb hideout beneath an abandoned brewery and kick open a shabby wooden door to reveal an amazing sight: the vast, almost frontier-like streets of lower Manhattan, circa 1846, brought to life in such exacting detail that you can almost smell the horse plop on the muddy roads.

This single shot does wonders for establishing the heavy, gritty, treacherous atmosphere of the muscle-ruled Five Points area in which the film is set. It's a place where falsely accused people are hung by crooked cops to set examples for petty criminals and where fire brigades duke it out in front of burning buildings to determine who gets to fight the fire.

Leading the pack of Irish bruisers is the stouthearted Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), who is subsequently killed in the ensuing violent, snow-bloodying street battle by William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) -- leader of The Natives, an vicious anti-immigrant gang, who leaves Vallon's young son, Amsterdam, one angry orphan.

Bill the Butcher, as Cutting is known, is a stovepipe-hat-wearing, riff-raff dandy and a much-feared basilisk of all-American ire. "If I had but guns," he says, "I'd shoot each and every one of them before they set foot on American soil." Nonetheless, he has his own kind of moral code and pays reverence to his slain rival for fighting with honor.

But that isn't enough to prevent Amsterdam from seeking revenge when he returns 16 years later, unrecognizable as a young man fresh from a reformatory, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in one of two great performances this holiday season. (The other is Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can," opening Christmas Day.)

Finally getting the "Titanic" monkey off his back, DiCaprio is renewed in this sweeping historical fiction. With dirt under his fingernails and fire in his belly, he's hardened enough to be believable as he beats down one of The Butcher's ruffians in a bare-knuckle brawl that earns him a position under Cutting's unsuspecting wing.

Scorsese also seems invigorated by finally making this film he's had on the back burner for more than two decades. In fact, he is so enamored of the story -- written by Jay Cocks (Scorsese's "The Age of Innocence"), Seven Zaillian ("Schindler's List," "Hannibal") and Kenneth Lonergan ("You Can Count On Me") -- that he gets carried away with the huge budget he's been provided. "Gangs" is conspicuously over-cinematic (crane shots galore) and over-produced.

While its outdoor locations (built on the backlots of Cinecitta Studios in Italy) are transportingly authentic, the indoor sets look like exquisite museums to period grime. Every character looks magnificently scruffy, as if each of their matted hairs was placed exactly where someone wanted it. Every scene is lit to obtrusive perfection and production-designed within an inch of its life. The practical upshot of all this is that the filmmaking sometimes drowns out the plot -- especially in the opening street fight, which is rapidly edited with hundreds of cuts and scored with strangely incongruous electric guitar wail. (On the subject, what's with that U2 song over the closing credits?)

Even Day-Lewis gets caught up in the extravagance, throwing himself into Bill the Butcher's complex but inexorable psyche to such a degree that his intense, blustering, strangely sympathetic performance eventually becomes overbearing.

But the story -- symbolic as it is of the United States' ongoing struggle with violence, culture and class values -- really grabs hold of you with its powerfully brusque depictions of hard-scrambled life. Its authenticity is aided by the inclusion of real historical figures (Jim Broadbent is superb as notoriously crooked politician Boss Tweed) and monumental events in the city's history (like the deadly, epidemic Draft Riots of 1863).

Late in the game -- after Amsterdam has patiently plotted his retribution and found time to fall for a pretty, steely pickpocket (Cameron Diaz) -- "Gangs" develops one very pointed problem with its plot. Bill the Butcher lets Amsterdam live after discovering his treachery and beating him within an inch of his life. Then suddenly the kid has built up a gang of his own to rival The Natives, without Scorsese explaining how he rose to power or how he avoided finding an axe in his back. After all, that is a fate delivered by Bill Cutting himself, in broad daylight, upon a sheriff who dared stand up to the ruthless despot of Five Points.

The tag line for this film is "America was born in the streets," and the dark, unspoken truth of that notion comes through quite definitively in the way "Gangs" reproduces one minority group's fight for an American-dream foothold (and for their very lives) against the same kinds of people who hated Italians after they got used to the Irish and detested African-Americans during the Civil Rights movement. And while the movie may not live up to the hype that has surrounded it since its originally scheduled release last Christmas (rumors abound of editing battles between Scorsese and scissor-happy Miramax chair Harvey Weinstein), it is certainly a unique, worthy and rousing glimpse into a part of our history rarely (if ever) portrayed in film.


Gangs Of New York Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, Opened: Friday, December 20, 2002


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