Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Daniel Day-Lewis
Tag line: "America Was Born In The Streets"
Trivia: Martin Scorsese hired "The Magician", an Italian man famous for a 30-year career as a pickpocket, to teach Cameron Diaz about the art of picking pockets
Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is a hard-hitting period piece, an often engaging look at New York during the days of the U.S. Civil War, one of the most tumultuous eras in the city’s history.
Gangs of New York is also a very ambitious film. In fact, I’d argue it’s a bit too ambitious.
We begin in 1846, when two opposing gangs: the Natives, under the command of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis); and the Dead Rabbits, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), face off against each other in an area of the city known as the “Five Points”. The fight concludes when Bill, a bigoted nationalist whose ultimate goal is to keep immigrants from entering the United States, kills the Irish-born Vallon, an incident witnessed by Vallon’s young son, Amsterdam. Sixteen years pass, and a now-adult Amsterdam (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) leaves the orphanage where he was raised and returns to the Five Points, where he wins the favor of Bill the Butcher (who doesn’t recognize him) and falls in love with a pretty prostitute named Jenny (Cameron Diaz). Before long, Bill starts to look upon Amsterdam as if he were his own son. As for Amsterdam, he’s biding his time, waiting for the right moment to avenge his father by striking Bill down.
One of the major strengths of Gangs of New York is how it captures the look and feel of the city’s Five Points district in the mid-19th century, which, by all accounts, was a dirty, run-down slum where whores, pickpockets, and gang members gathered on a daily basis. Dante Feretti, who also worked with Scorsese on the sumptuously beautiful The Age of Innocence, handled the Production Design, aided by Costume Designer Sandy Powell (Rob Roy, Shakespeare in Love) and Set Designer Francesca Lo Schiavo (The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, Interview with the Vampire). Together, they recreate an area of New York that, prior to this movie, only existed in history books, bringing it to life in a most convincing way.
Equally as impressive is the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as William Cutting, aka Bill the Butcher, who rules the Five-Points with an iron fist. Preaching America for Americans, he and his gang of Natives often shout insults at the Irish, as well as other minorities. What’s more, Bill is a cold-blooded killer, an expert with a knife who never backs down from a fight. Yet, despite his violent nature, Bill is also a man of honor, a warrior who adheres to the ancient code of combat. We get a glimpse of both sides of Bill in the opening battle against Priest Vallon, when he dispatches his opponent in brutal fashion, then cradles the injured man's head as he dies, promising Priest (whom he respects immensely) that his pain will soon be over. The entire cast is strong, especially DiCaprio (in his first of several collaborations with Scorsese) as the young man seeking vengeance, and Jim Broadbent, who portrays the corrupt Boss Tweed as a very likable crook. But the film’s energy level increases tenfold whenever Bill the Butcher is on-screen. A tremendous actor, Day-Lewis is one of the few 3-time Oscar winners who probably deserves twice that number.
Where Gangs of New York falters is its scope, trying to jam far too much into 168 minutes. There were thousands of stories floating around the city during the days of the Civil War, and Scorsese seems intent on telling all of them at once. Many of these tales: the formation of the gangs; the role of the Police and Fire departments in the Five Points district; the political corruption of Boss Tweed; the racial bigotry; the draft riots, are, indeed, fascinating, and any one of these topics would have made an excellent film in its own right. Thrown together in the same picture, none get the detailed attention they deserve.
The fact that Gangs of New York, in spite of its over-reaching, comes so close to greatness is a testament to its director, as well as the cast and crew he gathered around him.