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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



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Review by Harvey Karten
3 stars out of 4

Do you long for the good old days when New York newspapers and post cards were a penny, seltzer was two cents, when you could smoke in restaurants and be free from the harassments of police who ticket you for a blown-out back light on your twelve- year-old VW? Would you want to live in Manhattan when monthly rents were in two figures, being at the crossroads of the nation's culture without maxing out on your MasterCard? Then set your time machine back to when different ethnic groups lived together harmoniously, when you could walk the streets at night while keeping your head on your shoulders, and where you could breathe pure air and glorious sunshine free from the pollutants of automobiles, planes and cell phone indulgences. Oops...you made a mistake. You went back to the 1860's only to find yourself in a city enmeshed in such violence and corruption that today's Manhattan looks remarkably like Plato's Republic. To Trent Lott's dismay, slavery is breathing its last gasp, but insidious forces of class and culture are ripping the core from the Big Apple.

What would you find in those glorious days of yesteryear? According to Martin Scorsese, a devotee of films of intelligence, visual beauty, verbal style and feverish imagination, you'd witness things that teacher never told you about our Great Nation, but then again the revisionists who diss Abraham Lincoln for not really caring whether slavery existed or not and downgrade Columbus for not really discovering America and for bringing nothing but disease and death to the natives, would not be at all surprised.

If you lived in the middle of the 19th century in the area now inhabited by Manhattan's Federal Courthouse just blocks northeast of City Hall, you'd in the center of a storm. This was the neighborhood that would make Hell's Kitchen, the scene for "West Side Story," look like Dorothy's Kansas. At the crossroads of five large avenues centered on Paradise Road was the a section called Five Points where sordid things were going down. Boss Tweed ruled Tammany Hall, responsible for getting votes for his party especially from the immigrants who lurched forth from boats, eager to avoid the famine and general poverty of Ireland. As Tweed (Jim Broadbent) states in the film, it's not the ballots the win elections: it's the counters. Tweed was not at all disturbed to have his henchmen drag workers away from whatever activity they considered more important. Women of the night worked the 'hood, some moonlighting as pickpockets such as the prettiest redhead in the city, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) who might have introduced current pliers of the trade with the method often used, bump and pick. (When Jenny would accidentally trip over you, you mind was not on your wallet for the moment.)

Cops were corrupt, of course, the neighborhood covered by Happy Jack (John C. Reilly). The film's center, however, is the conflicted relationship between Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis performing in the role of the meat-cutter who actually existed at the time), and a second-generation Irish-American who had been in the country all his life, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio). Amsterdam at the age of about six witnesses a small war in 1846 between the so-called Nativists who believe themselves to be the True Americans and were led by Bill the Butcher, and the newer settlers, the Irish, led by Amsterdam's dad, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Weapons, shown to us in the audience close up, include axes, sticks, knives and bricks, and it is here that the forces believing that too much violence in the movies spills over into audience action would be tempted to leave the theater as the cobblestone streets are painted blood-red.

When Scorsese moves forward by sixteen years to 1863-3, the Civil War is in progress, men are being drafted although the rich fellows who had $300 could buy their way out, and Amsterdam strangely becomes a best buddy of Bill presumably because as an orphan Amsterdam looks to his dad's killer as a powerful father figure while for his part the childless Bill "adopts" the young man not knowing his real identity. The nucleus of the drama is the ironic relationship between the two courageous men, Bill teaching Amsterdam how to kill by having him practice on a pig (whose organs are most similar to those of human beings). Ultimately Amsterdam's identity becomes known, leading to a final face-off in July 1863 between the forces that Amsterdam has rallied to his side and the Nativists led by Bill. To add to the fireworks, to the obligatory finale, the Union Army has come to New York, rifles blazing, in its mandate to put down the Draft Riots the worst in American history as hundreds of New Yorkers too poor to buy their way out smash and loot the homes of the rich (like the Schermerhorns) and the draft board itself.

While "Gangs of New York" brilliantly recreates the battle scenes both in 1846 and 1863 filmed by Michael Balhaus not in the Big Apple but rather in Rome's Cinecitta massive studios the film is less successful in conveying the psychology of the participants. At one point, a man shouts, "The Irish are taking away the jobs of the real Americans," but since that cry fades quickly we wonder whether that argument, at least somewhat based in rationality, was a principal cause of the ethnic cleansing. Still another offers that the new immigrants owe their allegiance to the pope in Rome and not to the American idea. More likely we can assume that the central cause is hatred, pure and simple the fear of people who are different in culture. Maybe there's something hardwired into human beings that give rise to such animosity. After all, do people not sometimes say when the fighting is done that they feel exhilarated?

As actors Daniel Day-Lewis overshadows Leonardo DiCaprio, who this year feels more at home in the great Spielberg comedy, "Catch Me If You Can." Day-Lewis, performing in the role of a man without moral restraints, is mesmerizing, making us question whether Mayor Michael Bloomberg could succeed in enforcing his no-smoking rules against Bill the Butcher and his coterie of slaughterers.

Copyright 2002 Harvey Karten

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