Gangs of New York

The original idea for Gangs of New York came about thirty years ago. It has taken director Martin Scorcese that long to fully realize his dream of a sprawling epic set in the notorious Five Points area in old Manhattan. This is a dirty, grimy, New York City of the Civil War era, populated by a growing number of Irish immigrants and self-proclaimed 'natives,' people born in the United States (but who may only be a couple generations removed from immigrant status themselves). From the look of the movie, those thirty years were well spent on background and production, but it looks like part of the story got lost somewhere within that time. Gangs of New York is a beautiful movie that cleverly integrates fact and fiction, but feels slightly hollow at its core.

The film centers on various gang rivalries, chiefly between the Irish, led by Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Beach, Don's Plum) and the natives, led by Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis, The Boxer, The Crucible). Years ago, Cutting killed Amsterdam's father and gained control of the Five Points. Amsterdam ran away, but harbored nothing but thoughts of revenge. He returns years later with the intention to kill Cutting. Nobody recognizes him, and because he is smart and brash, Cutting takes him under his wing. He is so good that in a way, he becomes something like a son to Cutting. This entire sequence is the weakest portion of Jay Cocks (Strange Days, The Age of Innocence) Steve Zaillian (Hannibal, A Civil Action) and Kenneth Lonergan's (You Can Count on Me, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle) screenplay. It seems to drag on a little too long, to the detriment of the Amsterdam character. Why exactly is he biding his time so long? Yes, there is some symbolic reason for what he does but things get a little too slow at times, especially with a romance involving Cameron Diaz (Minority Report, The Sweetest Thing). Gangs of New York is at its best at the beginning and once Amersterdam makes his move, combining lots of violence with a sweeping scale.

Casting DiCaprio turned out to be a mixed blessing. He does okay, but just doesn't seem to measure up to the role. DiCaprio squints, sulks and sneers enough (and bulked himself up) but cannot quite embody the smoldering rage of Amsterdam. Nevertheless, this is his best role in quite some time. Day-Lewis completely upstages DiCaprio and everybody else. Cutting is a larger-than-life figure, swaggering, violent, yet oddly benevolent. Scorcese (Bringing Out the Dead, My Voyage to Italy) reportedly lured Day-Lewis out of his semi-retirement, and Day-Lewis reportedly stayed in character for the duration of the shoot. He is simply mesmerizing to watch, and steals every scene he is in, even taking attention away from great actors like Jim Broadbent (Iris, Moulin Rouge).

Gangs is an epic achievement on the level of scale, enough so to forgive parts of its problematic plot. Scorcese has always had an eye for detail, and its no surprise that Gangs looks as good (or bad) as it does. It seems that he paid attention to everything down to the last detail. He then takes things to the next level by successfully integrating historical concepts and figures into the plot, which gives a greater understanding of some of the big picture ideas. The Civil War and especially conscription figure prominently into everybody's mind, and political corruption and Boss Tweed (Broadbent) run rampant. Gangs of New York has the feel of a bomb waiting to explode, and explode it does. The movie culminates in a huge street fight with what looks like thousands of participants, and although it is quite a wait before this point, it is well worth sitting through some of the duller moments.

Haro Rates It: Pretty Good.
2 hours, 44 minutes, Rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity, and language.

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