Martin Scorsese wanted to make Gangs of New York for over twenty years. He announced it as his follow-up project after Taxi Driver in 1977, but one thing or another kept pushing it into the background. Scorsese never lost his passion for the project, though. When he finally did get around to making Gangs, there were more setbacks; an initial Christmas 2001 release date
was pushed back an entire year so Scorsese could edit the film to a length deemed acceptable by Miramax Films. Scorsese says that despite the editing discussions, the vision on screen remains his own; a few simple trims were made to tighten the pace, with his approval. In other words, don't look for a Director's Cut DVD. "This," he told USA Today, "is the cut."
So was Gangs of New York worth the time, effort, and wait? Without a doubt. Scorsese has rightfully been called our greatest living director, which he proves yet again with this stirring masterpiece.
The story is set in 1860's New York, where gangs of different nationalities battle for the right to carve out part of the city as their own. Liam Neeson plays Priest Vallon, leader of an Irish gang known as the Dead Rabbits. He brings together Irish immigrants in a fight to be allowed a place in the Five Points area. Vallon is killed by Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), the vicious - but not unmannered - leader of the Nativists, who believe that New York should remain a place for those who were born in this country.
Sixteen years later, Vallon's son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in the Five Points section to exact revenge against Cutting. Each year, Cutting and his gang celebrate the death of Priest Vallon; Amsterdam plans to sidle up to him, then ambush him on the anniversary. Amsterdam gets quite close to his enemy's inner circle. The more time he spends watching Cutting, the more he admittedly becomes fascinated by the man's charisma and fierce determinism. This does not stop him from planning his revenge, though.
During this time, Amsterdam also meets Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket to whom he finds himself attracted. Jenny has some connections to Bill the Butcher, although they aren't the kind of connections that Amsterdam initially assumes. The subplot isn't really a love triangle so much as it is a triangle of loyalty.
One thing I love about Gangs of New York is its scope. In addition to the three central characters, we also get to know Happy Jack (John C Reilly), a former Dead Rabbit-turned-cop who now is under the influence of Cutting. Another important character is Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleason), another former ally of Priest Vallon's who continues to skirt around the edges of Five Points. William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) is a politician struggling to make sense out of the chaos that engulfs the city. Although supporting characters, each of them has a vital role in the plot.
The era in which Gangs of New York takes place allows Scorsese to stage many large-scale fight scenes and to revel in period details. (One fight sequence takes place on the snowy ground amid crumbling buildings; by the time the massacre is over, the snow is stained red.) The director certainly knows how to bring these moments to life, but he also keeps an important emphasis on the characters. DiCaprio, Diaz, and Day-Lewis all play fully-realized characters for whom the outcome of New York is crucial. By keeping a focus on the human faces, Scorsese allows us to experience the importance of the time more fully; Amsterdam in particular serves as the audience's guide.
While all the actors are phenomenal, a special mention needs to be made for Day-Lewis, who returns to the screen after a five-year absence. He plays Bill the Butcher in a very theatrical, larger-than-life kind of way. At first, I wondered if he was going to overact, but he never does. Instead, he gives the character an almost mythic quality that makes him one of the most frightening (and volatile) characters in the history of film. It's a remarkable piece of acting, certain to get an Oscar nomination.
Gangs of New York shows us the fight for control of New York in all its horror, but also asserts that the fight was part of an important revolution. Few of us would be living here today had our ancestors not struggled and fought for the right to be here. The movie ends with a time-lapse montage of New York, taking us from the last moment of the story right up to 21st century New York, complete with a shining image of the World Trade Center. What might have come off as corny instead has a patriotic resonance. New York is an important city because it's a place where people of all nationalities live together, grieve together, and lean on one another in times of trouble. New York is a place where people are proud to live. It is also symbolic of everything that is great about America as a whole.
( out of four)
Gangs of New York is rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language. The running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes.
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