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GANGS OF NEW YORK(director: Martin Scorsese; screenwriters: Jay Cocks/Steven Zaillian/Kenneth Lonergan/story by Mr. Cocks; cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus; editor: Thelma Schoonmaker; music: Howard Shore; cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Amsterdam Vallon), Daniel Day-Lewis (Bill the Butcher), Cameron Diaz (Jenny Everdeane), Liam Neeson (Priest Vallon), Jim Broadbent (Boss Tweed), John C. Reilly (Happy Jack), Henry Thomas (Johnny Sirocco), Brendan Gleeson (Monk McGinn), Gary Lewis (Charles McGloin); Runtime: 168; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Alberto Grimaldi/Harvey Weinstein; Miramax; 2002)
“It’s a glorious spectacle like those D.W. Griffith made in the early days of silent film.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is an absorbing tale of urban crime in mid-19th-century New York City and the struggle of the immigrant rabble to fit in. It’s a ‘big beast’ of a film that Scorsese has made into his own personal epic. It’s ambitious beyond what it can deliver, but despite its many flaws it’s always absorbing. Dark and bloody and mind-blowing, it’s a history lesson that seems more like fantasy than fact. It’s a glorious spectacle like those D.W. Griffith made in the early days of silent film — it’s of blood feuds and political corruption, and of bigotry and of ethnic cleansing. It unfolds in a teeming city of tenements that look like pig sties.

The film loses itself in too many characters who say a couple of lines only to vanish without another word. It also loses itself in an orgy of violence, where there are so many corpses that we can’t really mourn because we never got to know them long enough when they were alive. The usually fastidious Scorsese lost control of this unwieldy film. But, somehow Scorsese makes up for that with all the passion he poured into his filmmaking. His bloody canvas paints history as a living force of change. It relentlessly hammers home the point how messy America’s democracy really is and how high the price was to be paid for those who came here expecting America to be a ready-made paradise.

There’s a staggering performance by its lead villain Daniel Day-Lewis, whose turgid vernacular comes in a heavy Noo Yawkese accent. His performance is reason enough for seeing the film. While one can also point to the best sets money can buy, where one can easily see how the $100-million budget was used purposefully as Lower Manhattan’s Five Points looked splendidly seedy and the city looked awesome as a stomping ground for a medieval battle of knives, razors, axes, clubs, and meat cleavers.

The long overdue film comes with its own secretive story of delay, as it was perhaps as long ago as 25 years that Scorsese was prepared to shoot the film. He was inspired by the 1928 book by Herbert Asbury entitled “Gangs of New York.” All looked good for the project when Miramax and Harvey Weinstein fronted the dough for a film many in Hollywood brushed aside as folly. But the price that came with such financial support was a certain loss of artistic freedom and a cutting down of the film into merely 168 minutes (this story could have gone on for four hours if completely told). There’s also the untold story about a year’s delay until the film finally opens in December of 2002, as something must have been going on between filmmaker and producer. One can only wonder what was left on the cutting room floor.

The set for Paradise Square on the Five Points where the battles were lodged, was actually shot in Rome’s spacious Cinecittá studio where great pains and expenses were taken to make it all look authentic. No matter what you may think of the film, there’s no arguing at how good it looks.

The story opens in 1846 and an Irish priest named Vallon (Neeson) and his young son come out of their church catacomb together as the priest prepares his Roman Catholic Irish gang called the Dead Rabbits to do street battle with Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his Protestant “Native Americans” for control of the Five Points. The Butcher kills the priest and 16 years later his son now called Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) emerges from 16 years in the Hellgate House of Reform, an orphanage, and creeps into the good graces of “Bill the Butcher” through his activities with his former mates who are in an Irish gang that does petty crimes. Amsterdam must have changed so much in appearance because of his thin Van Dyke, that he goes unrecognized by former gang members of his father’s — Charles McGloin (Gary Lewis) and the corrupt police constable Happy Jack (John C. Reilly). They have sold-out to the Butcher like everyone else trying to earn a dishonest living. The only ones who recognize him are his childhood pal Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), a small time criminal, and the mercenary thug barber Monk McGinn (Gleeson), who keeps the secret to himself and when he’s sure that Amsterdam could be trusted gives him the razor with his father’s blood from his cheek still on it. The Priest in a pre-battle-ritual cut himself with it and implored his son to never forget what it means, as he says: “The blood stays on the blade. One day you’ll understand.”

Politically New York is ruled by the heartless and corrupt Tammany Hall “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who is portrayed as a weasel who buys votes, commits graft and extortion, and will resort to do anything to have power. His enforcer is Bill the Butcher in an alliance made out of convenience. The Butcher’s hand is in everything criminal in the Five Points, as he’s always menacing on the screen even when he’s only sharpening his knives for some butchering. His fearsome mustache, which he’s in the habit of twirling, and his skyscraper stovepipe hat that makes him seem larger than life, give him an awe inspiring presence. The Butcher is a swaggering brute, a sadist, a bigoted Know Nothing—who in his black heart hates not only the Irish but all foreigners and even the Union itself. He blindly adopts Amsterdam as his surrogate son because he sees something in him that reminds him of himself, and all the while Amsterdam becomes part of his whoring inner circle there’s hanging a picture of the Priest in his headquarters tavern butcher shop. In a sentimental moment the Butcher goes on slobbering about fear is what controls people and his respect for Priest Vallon: “The only man I ever killed worth remembering.” In a Chinese restaurant he and his gang celebrate the battle of 1846 as a glorious holiday, and it is during this very celebration that Amsterdam plans his revenge.

The film’s middle-part has a bustling Five Points filled with brothels; Chinese restaurants as club meeting places; brawls between competing fire departments, who allow buildings on fire to be looted; an Uncle Tom’s Cabin play that is performed at a local settlement house, while the actor playing President Lincoln is suspended from the ceiling so he can be booed and pelted with fruit; there are parades for or against the Civil War; torch-lit political rallies; public hangings; pickpockets freely working the streets; unregulated bare-knuckle fights; and, the city activists stoning Irish immigrants as they arrive off the boats in the East River, while at the same time Tammany Hall instantly registers them to vote and the Union Army recruits them on the spot. It’s an ugly picture painted of the city, where everyone is tarnished with one brush stroke. There’s not one wholesome character. Horace Greeley and his Dutch Protestant magnates who run the city are depicted as either fools or bigots or thrill seekers who visit the Five Points only to show their moral superiority as they look down on the rabble. The Roman Catholic Church is depicted as politically motivated and corrupt. The city stinks so much, one can even smell its rotten odor in the theater as if some gimmicky “smell o’rama” was somehow installed.

To fill in time until the inevitable showdown between the rivals, a love interest for Amsterdam is brought into the story. The insolent pickpocket and sometime prostitute and daring house booster character played by Cameron Diaz, Jenny Everdeane. She’s a feisty beauty who attracts his eye but also disappoints him that she’s Bill the Butcher’s lover and protégé.

The last section of the movie is set during the 1863 draft riots, and here the personal, quasi-oedipal revenge story and the wider historical meanings fuse together, and the film depicts a struggle for democracy fought in the streets. As Amsterdam says after the draft riots: “Our great city was born in blood and tribulation.” This four day riot that nearly burned down the entire city was one of America’s darkest episodes, as it pitted the mostly Irish lower-class citizens of Manhattan against the army enforcing the government’s first draft law. In their violent rebellion the city gangs were massacred indiscriminately without warning by the military, while blacks were massacred by the mob. This scene is filled with bloodletting emotions, so much so that it brings this whole messy story together as a mythic example of the toil it takes to gain freedom. There’s no room in this Scorsese film for anyone with even a hint of pacifism in their veins. But for its penetrating visual shots and its controversial reflections on history and what those trying events might mean now, it’s a film to be cherished and much discussed.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”