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Gangs of New York

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All-Reviews.com Movie Review: Gangs of New York

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis
Director: Martin Scorsese
Rated: R
RunTime: 164 Minutes
Release Date: December 2002
Genres: Action, Drama


*Also starring: Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Cara Seymour, Barbara Bouchet



Review by Jerry Saravia
4 stars out of 4

It is clear by now that Martin Scorsese's films are as misunderstood as most other directors. This is not a man prone to happy endings, optimism, redemption or clear-cut morality. In that respect, "Gangs of New York" represents some of the director's finest work since "The Age of Innocence." It is a crossbreed of "Age's" meticulous reconstruct of a long-lost era with the savage tendencies of people from the mean streets as witnessed by "GoodFellas" and "Casino." This is not a pretty picture postcard view of American history during the Civil War, nor is it a morally sanctionable one. "Gangs of New York" is as sadistic and brutal as one can imagine - a time of corruption and hateful violence where a glimmer of humanity still exists.

Set in 1863, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young lad arriving in New York City by ship. The New York back then is not the New York of today, or for that matter the New York of "Age of Innocence" (the latter set only seven years later). The city is a breeding ground of sin, squalor, sex, drinking, prostitution, pickpockets and outright mayhem on every corner. Women are practically naked in bars, severed ears are used as barter for liquor, pig carcasses are used for target practice, hatchets, butcher knives and any other blunt weapon are used for attacks, cavernous dwellings exist as hideouts, dogs maul rats, bareknuckle fights ensue for money, and so on. There is also the P.T. Barnum Museum in town with its gallery of freaks, a club called "Satan's Circus," and the Chinese stage their own operas for entertainment.

The political game is run by Irish Catholics, especially Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), the highly corrupt boss of Tammany Hall (an Irish political machine). Votes for politicians are fabricated (nothing new there). The police and the fire chiefs are like gangs themselves, trying to make the peace in a volatile town where corpses litter the road and nobody gives them a second look. Pickpockets, like Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), pass themselves off as maids in upper class homes of bigwig politicians and steal jewelry by the handful.

Amsterdam's place in this hell is suspect, particularly by those who discover he is Priest Vallon's son. Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) was the Irish leader of the town twenty years earlier, later maimed by a rival gang leader. Amsterdam's intentions are to seek revenge against Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), who had slain his father in that very same ugly battle. Amsterdam worms his way into this sick society by engaging in bareknuckle fights. Bill is so impressed that he takes him in as a surrogate son. Then there is Jenny who manages to steal from street toughs like Amsterdam yet shows some degree of warmth and love (she has a history with Bill the Butcher). Jenny and Amsterdam fall in love and compare the scars on their bodies. Will Amsterdam ultimately seek revenge on Bill or will he decide not to intervene? After all, Bill takes him under his wing and uses him for betting bareknuckle fights. A war is also brewing between the North and the South and soldiers are needed to fight. With all this chaos ensuing, how can Amsterdam expect to ever leave this city? Or does he plan to?

If any flaws exist in "Gangs of New York," it is mostly centered on Amsterdam, a character who thrives on his toughness yet is no match for Bill. The question is: what is Amsterdam's purpose, outside of his vengeful mind? Who is this recalcitrant kid and what does he want from this hellish New York? As played by Leonardo DiCaprio, he exudes all the qualities of a young, foolish mind who is thinking more with his heart than his mind. DiCaprio does as well as he can with the thin character, and shows the charisma and talent that felt shorned in "Titanic" ever since. What is missing is Scorsese's subjectivity, favoring objectivity this time to tell the story of a time and place. This way we see how characters behave in the era portrayed rather than feeling their internal emotions. That is not to say that we still don't feel those internal emotions.

The real star of this violent world is Daniel Day-Lewis as the vicious, humanistic, compassionate, racist, hypocritical Native-American who rules New York with a fist. "I am New York," says Bill, and he means it. He is cruel and sadistic, uses knives with a natural ease, but can also appear like a wounded animal. Most films show villains to be so devoid of humanity that their savagery is all that matters. The fault lies in presenting such villains as cartoons, assuming that audiences could never accept them as human beings. Ah, but Scorsese is too smart to allow such one-dimensional savagery, witness "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" or the organized crime figures in "GoodFellas" and "Casino." Consider a truly powerful scene where Bill is draped in the American flag and confesses to Amsterdam that he plucked one of his eyes out after his initial fight with Priest Vallon. He also says that in a war, one man can stand out and make a difference, like his father had. It is an amazing scene that makes us feel some sympathy for Bill.

Bill the Butcher is one of the great villains of cinema history, on par with Henry Fonda's cold-blooded killer in "Once Upon a Time in the West" and Joe Pesci's uncontrollable Tommy in "GoodFellas." One of the executives of this film called Bill the Butcher "the meanest man in film history." It is possible considering that Bill can snap from a violent mode to a soulful to a sarcastic mode, depending on what triggers his moods. He can stab a man in the hand without much provocation, head butt anyone in his way, throw out equally potent words with wicked relish, and show some affection and fake tears over a dead rabbit. It is a shrewd, deftly controlled performance, and I would be remiss if I said he is not the main character of "Gangs of New York." Everyone acts in the film according to Bill's motives or plans, and nothing ever happens without sensing Bill is involved in some way.

There are two major gang battles, one at the start of the film and the other at the end. The first battle implies much of the violence between two gangs, the Native-Americans and the Irish-Americans. We see one character, known as Hellcat, sever an ear from one person, and mostly we hear the crushing of bones and knives thrust into bellies. The fight ends with an omniscient long shot where we witness the blood covering most of the snow-filled streets. Interestingly, the opposing gangs stand around and gather the corpses, as if the violence was their way of acting out their rage yet they are able to communicate for more than twenty years without raising a fist. Another later scene shows Bill having some kind of conference where he discusses what kinds of weapons should be used, asking the opposing gang (known as the Dead Rabbits) and other rival gangs if guns are objectionable. They will kill and maim each other as part of their control of New York's Five Points, but they can sit and discuss anything else without resorting to violence. Interesting to see this dichotomy of attitudes. The final battle, known as the Draft Riots, is an orgy of violence unprecedented on film where New York becomes a stage of bloodletting that may sicken and twist your stomach into knots. We see hangings, cannon blasts, rivers of blood, elephants running from Barnum's circus, buildings on fire and other unwatchable atrocities.

"Gangs of New York" can be seen as a historical piece or as an exceedingly violent melodrama of a past that many may want to forget. It is purely cynical, suggesting that New York's and America's foundations of democracy and racial attitudes were intensely corrupt to the core. Nobody could be trusted and politics was a mere fiasco where votes could be bought and selected politicians could be easily dispatched and replaced. In all this hate and racism emerged the New York of today, but can we truly say that those antiquated attitudes and values have not carried over to the present? Do we believe votes can still be bought? Is racism still a factor today or has it really disappeared? And what about drafts? If poor people then could not afford to pay the $300 to avoid the draft, then what about the possibility drafts of today to fight the war in Iraq when the country is in a recession? (As of this moment of writing, drafts are not likely to occur).

Powerful, compelling, riveting from first frame to last, "Gangs of New York" is one of the great film epics of all time. The New York of the 1840's and 1860's has been meticulously and believably recreated, minus the use of CGI. This is Scorsese's "Intolerance" for the 21st century, a fabulous walk into the past to a long forgotten historical footnote. DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz and Daniel-Day Lewis give extraordinary performances, though like most Scorsese films, these are not characters I would ever want to meet. Jim Broadbent as the quiet Boss Tweed, David Hemmings as an upper class politico who knows nothing of what is really going on, John C. Reilly as an Irish cop who knows he is not the mainstay of order and Henry Thomas as a childhood friend of Amsterdam's who betrays him contribute highly to this eclectic production. And the ending is one of the most moving sequences of all time, placing emotion in a vast canvas of violence and chaos showing that men of strength could be weakened and destroyed. When such a vicious bastard like Bill the Butcher elicits a smidgeon of sympathy from me, then I know I am in the hands of a director who can place a human face in the face of inhumanity. "Gangs of New York" is one of the seminal masterpieces of the 2000 decade, and surely one of Scorsese's greatest triumphs. You may never look at New York the same way again.

Copyright 2002 Jerry Saravia

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