The movie begins with the earlier 1847 showdown between Bill’s American-born, anti-immigrant gang, The Nativists, and the Irish Dead Rabbits gang (a Gaelic phrase meaning a violent, angry hulk), led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). The Nativists hated the Irish, who flocked to New York following the potato famine of the 1840’s, fearing the Irish would take jobs away from the “real” Americans. The gangs meet on opposite sides of the square and fight with merciless fury in a superbly shot and edited but unflinchingly bloody hand-to-hand battle reminiscent of the brutality of Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch.”
Priest’s young son, known only as Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), witnesses his father’s death at the hands of Bill, and as an orphan is sent to a reformatory. Sixteen years later he returns to Five Points seeking revenge. Along the way he meets Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a sexy redheaded pickpocket who steals men’s jewelry along with their affections. Amsterdam becomes enamored with Jenny while he is endearing himself to Bill. Jenny has a past with Bill, which further intensifies the drama. Later, when Amsterdam’s true identity is revealed, the story reaches a climax.
Scorsese has always been fascinated with the history of this setting, having grown up in nearby Little Italy. The actual site of Five Corners is where five streets came together at what is now the Federal Courthouse, located northeast of City Hall. Ever since he read Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book “Gangs of New York” 30 years ago, Scorsese had wanted to adapt it to the big screen. He enlisted his friend and collaborator, screenwriter Jay Cocks (“The Age of Innocence”) to write the story, which was later turned into a screenplay by Cocks, Steven Zaillian (“Schindler’s List”) and Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me”). The result is an authentic and moving story of class, power, love, redemption and survival in the boiling cauldron of that turbulent time in the city’s history. “Gangs of New York” presents stark class contrasts between the working poor living in squalor in tenements and without adequate winter clothing, and the rich, powerful elite in their fancy attire and lavishly-decorated mansions.
This little-known period of New York’s past, which overlaps with the Civil War years, is known only from old photographs and stories passed down through generations. Since the area no longer exists, Scorsese turned to Italy’s famous Cinecitta studios in Rome, where many of the greatest Italian movies were made, to rebuild his city from scratch. And he has created a memorable film teeming with cinematic energy and dramatic tension. In fact, “Gangs of New York” may be Scorsese’s most ambitious film yet. It has a reported cost of about $100 million. But, at 2 hours and 45 minutes the film feels long because the middle sections of the film drag somewhat. The film has been cut from Scorsese’s original 3 and a half hour version. There is too much focus on the three main characters; perhaps the longer cut would have remedied this. It will be very interesting to see what the DVD looks like if they restore these scenes. The film has Scorsese’s trademark mobile camera, with sweeping movements and overhead shots of the neighborhood action, as well as frenetic 1920’s style Russian montage editing in the fight sequences. One of my favorite scenes is the recreation of the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots, which raged for four days and nights, causing widespread destruction and loss of life. The riots were ignited by the inequity of the draft as anyone could pay $300 and be draft-exempt. The poor became enraged because they could not afford this and rebelled.
As usual, Scorsese elicits great performances from his actors in “Gangs of New York.” Daniel Day-Lewis is terrific as the evil yet funny “Bill the Butcher.” (He won the best actor award from the New York Film Critics Circle and may win the Oscar too). Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz are convincing as well, with apparent sparks of chemistry in their scenes together. The fine supporting cast includes Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly as officer Happy Jack, and Jim Broadbent as William “Boss” Tweed of the corrupt Tammany Hall government. Music plays an important role in the film, which features Irish folk music and African rhythms as well as U2’s “The Hands That Built America.”
Yet for all its merits, the impact of “Gangs of New York” is ultimately undercut by the extreme violence and gory bloodshed throughout the film, making it very difficult to watch at times. This will turn off many viewers and diminish its box office revenue. I suspect that the film will do well initially due to its substantial television advertisements and star power and then possibly level off because the word of mouth will keep it from becoming a hit. I don’t think “Gangs of New York” ranks with Scorsese’s greatest films, “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull,” and “Goodfellas,” belonging more in the category of “Age of Innocence” and “Last Temptation of Christ.” Nevertheless, if you have a strong stomach and you love great cinema don’t miss it.Rating: A-