Rating: R (strong sexual content, nudity, language and some teen drug and alcohol use)
Length: 167 minutes
Release Date: Dec. 20, 2002
Directed by: Martin Scorsese
Genre: Crime / Drama
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cameron Diaz
Stars: 3.5 out of 5
“Gangs of New York” is a bristling, warm, and blood-soaked film that offers nonstop entertainment for the entirety of its 167-minute run. Directed by Scorsese, the movie is set in the mid-1800s and chronicles the violent rise of the ganglands in premodern New York.
The movie opens with one of the best-shot fight scenes in cinema history. The year is 1846, and a territorial battle between the Dead Rabbits (an Irish Gang) and the natives is about to take place. It is atypical of gang battles for the period; two opposing groups face each other across a park and then charge wildly after some silent cue. There is nothing romantic about their cause. It is fueled by the most primitive of desires: hatred, greed, and survival. After five minutes of limbs flying, splashes of blood, and loud grunts, the fighting ends, leaving the snow-covered floor stained with blood and littered with corpses.
Among the victims is Priest Vallon, leader of the Rabbits, who is murdered by Bill the Butcher, a particularly ruthless gang leader who is short on mercy, especially when it involves the members of the Irish Gang. Vallon’s young son, Amsterdam, witnesses his death. Predictably, he makes a vow to get revenge on the man who killed his father, regardless of how long it takes. That singular goal drives the plot for the next one hundred minutes of the movie duration.
The film is inspired by Herbert Asbury’s nonfiction book, which chronicled the gangland events of Five Point’s Manhattan. Visually, the tone, the costume, and the set of the film feel just right and are enhanced by the performance of its colorful characters. Scorsese’s deft use of the camera pulls viewers in so deeply that, at times, they may almost smell the stink of the slums.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the lead role of the movie. He is Amsterdam, the young upstart who openly seeks to make his bones in crime while secretly desiring revenge for his father. Cameron Diaz plays the beautiful pickpocket Jenny and love interest of Amsterdam. She gives a great performance, but in this film, her beauty and fine figure seems to only serve as a distraction. When watching her refined performance, the viewer may find it hard to accept the offered backstory behind the character, namely that she’s a creature of the slums who relies on picking the pockets of the rich for survival. However, in those scenes in which she is not out on the streets but is indoors with Amsterdam, she performs at her best.
However, as inspiring as both their performances might be, it is nothing compared to that of Daniel Day Lewis. Playing the butcher Bill, Daniel Day Lewis brings the character to life with such chilling intensity that it leaves viewers with mixed emotions of dread, disgust, and an intriguing fascination. Lewis reportedly went on a five-year hiatus before doing this film, and it appeared to have benefited him greatly, because he literally pours himself into the character and time. Liam Neeson plays the short-lived Priest Vallon and brings to his performance the refined gravitas that he has perfected.
As the film goes on, the narrative begins to evolve. It becomes less about revenge and more about the strange code that binds criminal gangs. The films strips away Bill’s monster exterior and reveals a man so tortured that it is hard not to feel some empathy for him. Then, there is Amsterdam’s dilemma. Locked away in an orphanage for at least a decade, he returns to a world where many of his father’s old friends are now on good terms with Bill. The gentleman agreement keeps the violence at bay, a dynamic that can easily become shattered if Amsterdam continues with his obsessive desire. Brilliant at times, flawed in others, but never actually dull, “Gangs of New York” offers a window into a world that few people actually see. It is fascinating, riveting, and ultimately cold.
Martin Scorsese cemented his status as one of the best directors of his generations over two decades ago. So, his success with this film is really not surprising, especially given the subject. Fans of Scorsese will notice the similarities between “Gangs of New York” and other films such as “GoodFellas” and “Casino”. Scorsese takes great liberties with the historical background on which the film is set. For instance, although a Dead Rabbit riot did break out in 1846, no records exist of a fight as large and as grave as that depicted in the film’s opening scene. However, such is his skill and mastery at weaving a story that by the end of the movie, little of this will matter.