The Butcher and His Boy

Scorseses Gangs of New York

A darkly imagined saga of really, really mean streets, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York begins with a prologue of appalling violence. The year is 1846 and two hostile local militias are fighting for control of Five Points, a lumpen corner of downtown Manhattan crawling with vice, criminality and Darwinian struggles for survival. On one side are scores of newly arrived Irish Catholics headed by "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson), the gladiatorial chieftan of the wonderfully named Dead Rabbits gang; on the other, scores of viciously anti-immigrant Nativists, led by vicious, flamboyant William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), who sports a glass eye with a blue American eagle instead of an iris. As the two gangs face off, Paradise Square lies before them covered with snow, the better to show off the blood. The ragtag soldiers begin their headlong charge—bashing skulls with iron pipes and shillelaghs, slashing away with knives and razors, chopping into flesh with hatchets and cleavers—until the trampled snow is tinted a deep, ghastly pink.

This battle is just the first of many gruesome bloodlettings in this teeming tale of underclass life in Civil War–era New York. Loosely based on the lively (and often spurious) 1928 book by Herbert Asbury, Gangs of New York is a labor of love for Scorsese, who's spent the last quarter-century preparing to conjure up this tumultuous moment of his beloved city's past. This is no piece of clock punching like Bringing Out the Dead. Rather, from the lavish density of his re-created Manhattan (built at Rome's Cinecittŕ studios) to his bold attempt to make history pack the wallop of myth, Scorsese is playing for the highest stakes. Gangs of New Yorkaspires to be the great immigrant epic of the 19th century, a film with the reach and emotional resonance of those later historical epics based in New York, the first two Godfathers and Once Upon a Time in America.

It's a noble ambition, but Scorsese and his writers (Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan) have saddled their dream with a corny plot apparently lifted from some old 1930s Warner Bros. film starring Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien. The story proper begins in 1862 when Vallon's son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) gets out of the so-called House of Reform on Blackwell's Island and returns to Five Points to exact revenge on the man who 16 years earlier killed his father: Cutting, a philanthropic gangster (he doles out free meat) whose thugs now control that turf. Before he quite knows what's happening, Amsterdam has been sucked into Cutting's gaudy orbit. He becomes the Butcher's favorite henchman, almost a surrogate son, and finds himself falling for another of Cutting's protégés, the plucky young pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (played by a badly miscast Cameron Diaz, whose period garb and frizzed-up red hair can't disguise an essence that's pure SoCal moderne). While friends wonder if his will to revenge is weakening, Amsterdam quietly awaits his moment of reckoning with Bill the Butcher.

Gangs of New York is narrated, clunkily, by Amsterdam, one of those oddly passive heroes who we're supposed to think tough even though they spend most of their time observing the other characters. Although he appears to have a lot to do (avenge his murdered father, resurrect the Dead Rabbits, romance a good-looking woman), he's no Michael Corleone; his character is so thinly conceived that it would take a great performance to put blood in the young pip's veins. Even hiding his boyishness with a leather cap and a beard (well, sort of), the soft-chinned DiCaprio is too wispy a screen presence to hold up the business end of a two-fisted epic (though the same evanescence makes him perfect for Spielberg's Catch Me If You Can). As an actor, he's always been better at wet-eyed sensitivity than vibrant virility, and here he spends most of his time being overshadowed by the charismatic Day-Lewis, who looks as if he could swat the young punk away like a horsefly.

Of course, reactionary villains are almost always a blast—they're pumped full of juice by their hatreds—and Day-Lewis clearly relishes Cutting, whose looming top hat, sanguinary waistcoat and handlebar mustache give him the air of a psychopathic Mad Hatter. It's a funny, scary, hugely theatrical role—an old-school De Niro role, really—and after a voluntary five-year absence from the screen, Day-Lewis seizes it with an eager bravado which makes you suspect that repairing shoes may not be the road to contentment after all. Whether tapping his incongruously mobile glass eye with a knife-point, using a strung-up pig's carcass to teach Amsterdam the art of the quick kill, or launching into a melancholy remembrance of his old nemesis, Priest Vallon ("the last honorable man"), Butcher Bill is a huge, contradictory soul who's never more dangerous than when he thinks he's being amusing. But his dominating presence skews the whole picture. The only performers who can stand up to Day-Lewis' primal force are Jim Broadbent, who endows Tammany Hall's vote-grubbing Boss Tweed with an affably sidelong cunning, and bullish Brendan Gleeson, the great Irish actor, much of whose compelling role as a street fighter with 44 notches on his cudgel seems to have vanished onto the cutting-room floor.

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