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 Cinecitt 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 protgs, 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.
Over the years, Scorsese's work has become famous for its dazzling technique, but here his visual style lacks its customary pop. Perhaps he's slightly overwhelmed by production designer Dante Ferretti's simulacrum of old New York, which achieves an exhausting richness of detail: It's a swirl of churning streets, Chinese operas, dingy hop houses, political offices filled with caged birds, fancy uptown billiards rooms, vast multileveled tenements whose missing walls make them look like Olympian beehives. Virtually every shot contains something enjoyable to look at (Sandy Powell's costumes are vaudeville Dickens), but at times Scorsese seems too in love with his fabulous sets. Who cares about the faade of a whorehouse if Diaz's Jenny is going to dwindle into a ministering adornment in the third hour? Who wouldn't gladly swap Scorsese's pointless use of slow-mo for more attention to nuances of character? Near the end, Cutting commits a murder that profoundly violates everything we know about his strict moral code, yet the script seems not to notice. Like so many long-nurtured projects—think of Polanski's Pirates or Coppola's Tucker—the movie feels stillborn from its extended labor.
Then again, what ultimately gives Gangs of New Yorkits power is less its storytelling than its grand, bracingly radical vision of American history. Like Hugh Hudson in his unfairly reviled Revolution, Scorsese reminds us that our freedoms were won in the streets by common people, and that these freedoms did not come cheap. The movie evokes the overwhelming cruelty of a 19th-century America in which millions of Northerners hated Lincoln's obsession with “niggers,” Irish immigrants worked themselves to death for pennies in sweatshops, the poor were forced to become Civil War cannon fodder while the rich paid $300 a head to avoid conscription, high society practiced its lethal niceties with supreme politesse (as Scorsese chronicled in The Age of Innocence) and Boss Tweed preached his homegrown version of realpolitik: “You can always hire one half of the poor to kill off the other half.”
All these social forces come to a head-on collision in Gangs of New York's explosive climax, in which Scorsese's panoptic vision of the tribalized city comes close to achieving the richness he's been striving for since the opening minutes. Even as the Dead Rabbits and the Nativists begin yet another headlong confrontation, anti-draft rioters rampage through the streets of upper Manhattan, attacking the rich and lynching blacks; Union soldiers fire indiscriminately into the crowds, slaughtering anyone unlucky enough to be in range; and the politicians calculate, as always, how to turn all this death and destruction to electoral advantage. These 1863 Draft Riots were the most devastating in American history, yet—caught up in their personal duel—Amsterdam Vallon and William Cutting continue their blood feud, oblivious that their small, local battle is being drowned out by the cymbal clash of history.
In quieter days, Bill the Butcher once sat by Amsterdam's bedside and predicted the end of the world he held dear. “Civilization,” he intoned sadly, “is crumbling.” What he did not foresee, but what Scorsese's final images make clear, is that modern America was forged in a cataclysm of rage, chaos, bloodshed and dreams.
GANGS OF NEW YORK was directed by MARTIN SCORSESE; written by JAY COCKS, STEVEN ZAILLIAN and KENNETH LONERGAN; and produced by MICHAEL OVITZ, BOB WEINSTEIN and RICK YORN. Check the Calendar's movie guide through the holidays for show times.