“Gangs of New York” bears all the earmarks of a magnum opus for Martin Scorsese: Fascinating and fresh material about his beloved New York City, an epic reach, an equally epic gestation period, a dynamic criminal element, combustible socio-political-religious elements, outstanding actors and sophisticated allusions to cinema history that inform and enrich the experience. The enormously ambitious picture that has emerged after some 30 years of on-and-off effort and more than two years of production falls somewhat short of great film status, but is still a richly impressive and densely realized work that bracingly opens the eye and mind to untaught aspects of American history. An aggressive marketing campaign by Miramax, with an emphasis on the big names atop the cast, and the attendant publicity surrounding release of the long-awaited production, will assure a strong commercial start, and any awards bounty will help. But, as it almost always has with Scorsese films, the mass public will likely resist the violence and tough, unsentimental stance of the picture, resulting in hard-won midrange B.O.
Having examined the rarefied stratum of New York society so meticulously in “The Age of Innocence” nearly a decade ago, Scorsese uses the hook of gang warfare among the city’s lowest classes in the 1860s to illuminate such fascinating, pertinent and generally ignored topics as mass immigration, political corruption, prejudice, the nation’s first military conscription (which could be avoided by the wealthy for $300), the hostility toward Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War by major groups in the North, and the 1863 Draft Riots, the worst in American history. In this respect alone, watching the film, written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan and inspired by Herbert Asbury’s anecdotal 1928 chronicle of the same name, is akin to seeing the history book shaken free of dust and instead coursing with blood.
And blood does play a big part in it, beginning with a frighteningly violent and — with accelerated action and electronic guitar intrusions — sometimes aesthetically jarring initial 15-minute setpiece that pits the American-born Nativists, led by William Cutting, aka “Bill the Butcher” (Daniel Day-Lewis), against the despised Dead Rabbits gang of recently arrived Irish Catholics led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Brandishing blades of every size and shape, the dozens of urban warriors gruesomely hack one another to bits until Bill manages to nail his prime adversary and assume control over the seedy and dangerous area on Manhattan’s Lower East Side known as the Five Points.
Witnessing the massacre is Vallon’s young son, who disappears for 16 years of tough learning at the Hellgate House of Reform before slipping back into the Five Corners in 1862. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a husky, circumspect type, has his sights set on revenge, but is faced with a Bill the Butcher who has become the cock of the walk, a lean, preening gent in waistcoat and stovepipe hat who has lost none of his viciousness: “Each of the Five Points is a finger, and when I close my hand, it becomes a fist,” Bill warns.
For all its points of interest about the workings of Tammany Hall and the endlessly corrupt William “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent), the early expository material comes off as somewhat sloppy and compressed, which delays the picture from getting squarely on track.
Hoping to blend in, Amsterdam confirms his identity only to old friend Johnny (Henry Thomas) and accompanies him on a job at Bill’s behest. He ventures briefly into “Age of Innocence” territory when he follows pickpocket and fellow Five Points orphan Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) uptown, where she wears fancy clothes in order to enter and rob the homes of rich families (one presided over by Scorsese in a brief cameo). Spirited, feisty, resourceful and skilled at survival, Amsterdam and Jenny clearly are two of a kind, but she blows him off for the moment.
Given the scrupulousness of pic’s approach and the vast canvas to be painted, the setting-up takes the better part of an hour. But pic hits its stride in the middle rounds, as Bill, who’s never had a son of his own, embraces Amsterdam as a protege, teaching him the tricks of his bloody trade (his demonstration of knifing techniques on a pig carcass is classic).
For his part, Amsterdam keeps his own counsel and bides his time, coming to increasingly value his relationship with his boss. In a superb sequence set at a performance of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” that includes an actor playing President Lincoln being ridiculed and pelted by the audience, Amsterdam saves Bill from an assassin’s bullet. This earns him a place by Bill’s side as they relax at a bordello-cum-opium den, but Amsterdam uses the occasion to finally consummate his edgy relationship with Jenny.
In a wonderfully blunt, understated monologue, Bill confides in Amsterdam, quietly acknowledging how Priest Vallon was the only man he killed whom he respected and how fear is the tool he uses to preserve order. “Civilization is crumbling,” Bill laments — and so thoroughly has his character been developed in the writing and by Day-Lewis’ sensational performance that, ironic is it may be, it’s perfectly clear how the remark represents the truth from this arch-criminal’s point of view.
Even after Jenny reveals to her new lover the extent of her past relationship with Bill, Amsterdam still can’t afford to open up. But his true identity soon is betrayed to Bill, who comes within a whisker of killing his presumed disciple before disfiguring him and sending him away. Thus is the way paved for Amsterdam’s long convalescence, a la Brando in “One Eyed Jacks,” and his preparation to avenge his father’s killing once and for all.
The inevitability of this dramatic trajectory is finessed by the tumultuous events that otherwise dominate pic’s third act, notably the building tension between Bill and Boss Tweed over the growing Irish population, which the Democratic politician views as a fertile ground for votes. By 1863, the two have fallen out so completely that Tweed is convinced by Amsterdam, now the Irish community’s emboldened leader, to run an Irishman and old friend of Priest Vallon’s (played by Brendan Gleeson) for sheriff, with devastating results.
Preparations for the climactic “rumble” between Bill’s “Native Americans” and Amsterdam’s resurgent Dead Rabbits are intercut with the onset of the Draft Riots, which engulfed the entire city and, in real life, lasted for four days and nights. Ambitious attempt to balance the macro and micro aspects of history is managed pretty well if not with magisterial confidence, and a quiet sequence of cityscape shots at the very end will insure a reflective audience posture upon exit.
There is no mistaking what Scorsese is attempting here — a grand historical/political/romantic epic that places memorable characters against a rich cultural backdrop in the manner of “The Leopard,” “The Godfather Part II” and “Once Upon a Time in America.” By these standards, the shortcomings of “Gangs of New York” are evident — uneven pacing, lack of full integration of secondary characters, intermittent over-eagerness to create an effect for effect’s sake, uncertain tone in Amsterdam’s V.O. narration compared to the pungency of much of the dialogue.
Still, there are many aspects of “Gangs” that could justify analyses of their own. The research that by necessity went into re-creating the vanished and meagerly documented area has paid off in a surpassingly physical way, first and foremost in Dante Ferretti’s extraordinary production design constructed at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios. Beginning with the underground caves from which emerge Priest Vallon and his son in the film’s opening shots, and moving on to the zoo-like tenement cages inhabited by the fresh batch of immigrants, the wonderfully individuated offices of Bill and Tweed, a “Shanghai Gesture”-like Chinese entertainment emporium and the massive web of exterior streets, Ferretti’s work is a surpassing wonder.
Then there are
Sandy Powell’s colorfully eccentric and exaggerated but somehow convincing costumes, the barrelful of source music that dominates a soundtrack filled out by Howard Shore’s mostly effective but occasionally intrusive score, the blessed scarcity of CGI shots and the energetic mobility of Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography. At the same time, it must be said that the shots, on the whole, lack the compositional boldness, elegance and visual grace of the best of the six Scorsese-Ballhaus collaborations, particularly “Age of Innocence.”
The depiction of the historical, political and ethnic/racial aspects of the era undoubtedly will be assessed, and buffs will delight in citing references and sources of inspiration, which run the gamut from D.W. Griffith’s original New York gang film, the 1912 “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” to Samuel Fuller’s crime mellers “House of Bamboo” and “Underworld U.S.A.”
Just one example of the film’s staggering resourcefulness lies in the vast array of accents used by the 100-plus actors with speaking parts. There are hints in Day-Lewis’ speech patterns of what has come to be known as a “New York accent,” but there’s a grand, articulate quality to it as well that sets it apart. DiCaprio plausibly adopts a light Irish lilt, while there are some Hibernians who speak no English at all, only Gaelic. Normally one doesn’t take note of a film’s dialogue coach, but the man on the spot here, Tim Monich, deserves kudos for his extraordinarily attentive work.
A scary, galvanizing presence here with his massive moustache and chops, plastered-down hair and one good eye, Day-Lewis succeeds in making Bill the Butcher into a surprisingly rounded figure one can understand without ever forgetting his malevolence. Particularly amusing is this minimally educated man’s appetite for fancy words, which he drops into sentences with poisonous intent. For good measure, he sports garb that makes him look even taller than he is, and thesp also mastered Robert De Niro’s sneeringly insincere grin.
More robust than before and sporting light whiskers, DiCaprio is a dynamic physical and emotional force throughout, while Diaz vibrantly plays the redheaded wildcat whose willfulness seems to subside only in the third act, when she’s suddenly reduced to playing nursemaid for Amsterdam.
Only complaint that could be registered about the supporting players is that they’re not given enough to do, particularly Gleeson as a taciturn roughneck with 44 kill notches on his club, and Thomas, effective in limited use as an ambiguous tragic figure. Broadbent, Neeson and Reilly, the latter as a cop in cahoots with the gangs, all sock over their roles with gusto and conviction.