It certainly was a long time coming, but Martin Scorsese’s new historicaldrama, Gangs Of New York, has finally arrived. The man who made Goodfellas and Raging Bullgoes back to his roots for his first film in years – and it explodes with such a level of passionate, intelligent filmmaking that any trifling flaws are quickly forgotten and forgiven.
In 1860′s lower Manhattan, the Five Points section is a dark, swarmingcorner of the city known for vice and chaos. Amsterdam Vallon (LeonardoDiCaprio) is a young Irish immigrant and the orphaned son of Priest Vallon(Liam Neeson)–once leader of the Dead Rabbits gang that rallied the Irishimmigrants of the neighborhood. After 16 years in a reform house outside thecity, Amsterdam has returned to the city to hunt down his father’s killer,”Bill the Butcher” (Daniel Day-Lewis), who has since become the mercilessleader of the Five Points, one with an intense dislike for the waves ofimmigrants coming into both New York and America.
Each year, on the anniversary of the Priest’s death, the victory iscommemorated with a celebration. Amsterdam’s plan is clear: to lie in waitand slay his father’s killer at the celebration. While waiting, Amsterdamworks his way deep into the Butcher’s inner circle. But the closer he getsto Bill, the more he falls under his spell and becomes conflicted–playingthe role of the killer’s surrogate son while keeping the true secret of hispast. At the same time, Amsterdam meets Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), apickpocket whose independence from all that surrounds them fascinates him.When details of her closely linked past with Bill emerge, the relationshipbetween the three intensifies. Amsterdam’s fight for family honor, freedomand the woman he loves ultimately collides with a pivotal moment in New Yorkand American history: the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots.
In addition to Amsterdam’s story, the Civil War and the Draft Riots, thescreenplay by Jay Cocks (Age of Innocence), Steven Zaillian(Schindler’s List) and Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count On Me)also takes on the city’s rampant corruption, racism and massive influx ofimmigrants, in particular the Irish. Any one of these topics could developinto their own three-hour film. Here, they’re stuffed into a single filmthat runs under three hours, occasionally causing a loss of dramatic focus (the delay in the film’s release is largely attributed to an editing process that pared it down from a snip short of four hours).It’s a problem to be sure, but slight enough not to dilute the story’s overallemotional impact, especially when it comes to the “father and son” dynamicbetween Amsterdam and Bill.
Very few filmmakers working today would be able to take on a project asexpansive as Gangs of New York and manage to make it work so well,but then again Martin Scorsese is hardly your run-of-the-mill filmmaker.Even during its narrative lapses, the passion and brilliance of Scorsese’sdirection shines through in every frame. Watching this film, you can’t helpbut feel privileged at being able to witness the work of a true artist, onewho truly cares about the content of the film and not how much it willplease demographic groups.
DiCaprio and Diaz, despite occasionally wavering accents, turn in solidlead performances, while Neeson, Jim Broadbent as corrupt politician ‘Boss’Tweed, John C. Reilly’s crooked constable Happy Jack, Brendan Gleeson’s MonkMcGinn and Henry Thomas as Amsterdam’s friend Johnny, are all first rate insupporting roles.
All, however, stand in the shadows of Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance asBill The Butcher. Not only is the performance of 2002, Lewis’ Bill isone of the most interesting and well-rounded screen villains we’ve seen inquite some time. Similar to Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in RagingBull or Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, Bill theButcher is a character we can despise, empathize and be completely afraidof. It’s an articulate, unforgettable performance worthy of every accoladethe world of cinema has to offer.
Technically, Dante Ferretti’s production design is incredible (good tosee actual built sets and not virtual ones created by a computer), as are ThelmaSchoonmaker’s editing, Michael Ballhaus’ rich cinematography and SandyPowell’s colorful costume design. The musical, a combination featuring thelikes of Peter Gabriel, U2 and composer Howard Shore, makes for aninteresting backdrop to the proceedings.
Martin Scorsese has been trying to get Gangs Of New York to thebig screen for the past quarter-century, which include a couple of years ofa production that could be called tumultuous at the very least. Despite thedelays, setbacks and problems, we have a film that was well worth the wait.Harkening back to an era where an intelligent story, character and trueartistic passion were the driving force behind making a movie, Gangsis a powerful drama that every serious film fan should seek out andtreasure.