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Having seen his father killed in a major gang fight in New York, young Amsterdam Vallon is spirited away for his own safety. Some years later, he returns to the scene of his father's death, the notorious Five Points district in New York. It's 1863 and lower Manhattan is run by gangs, the most powerful of which is the Natives, headed by Bill "The Butcher" Cutting. He believes that America should belong to native-born Americans and opposes the waves of immigrants, mostly Irish, entering the city. It's also the time of the Civil War and forced conscription leads to the worst riots in US history. Amid the violence and corruption, young Vallon tries to establish himself in the area and also seek revenge over his father's death. Written by
Gangs of New York is just perfect entertainment. It is an enthralling, bloody, melodramatic epic that more than justifies its two and one half hour running time. In Gangs director Martin Scorsese spins another tale of the New York underworld but with a twist. Instead of the mid-twentieth century organized crime milieu of Goodfellas, Scorsese ventures back to the 19th century to show us the origin of the modern street gang.
It's the early 1860s and the notorious Five Points slum is ruled by the savage `Bill the Butcher'. The viciously nationalistic Bill terrorizes all the immigrant masses jammed into his slum but seems to harbor a particular hatred for the Irish population. Into this seething cauldron wanders mysterious young Amsterdam Vallon who soon works his way into the trust and affection of Bloody Bill. Amsterdam, however, has a past with the unsuspecting Butcher and sports an agenda not unlike a certain Prince of Denmark. Bloody vengeance and dark betrayal soon come to pass, all played against a backdrop of corruption and unrest that lead to up to the horrors of New York Civil War draft riots.
Daniel Day-Lewis is marvelous as Bill the Butcher. His Bill is both recognizably human and a full bore, moustache-twirling villain. Day-Lewis strides his savage and profane way across the screen and steals the whole of the movie. The only other actor to approach Day-Lewis' level is Jim Broadbent as William 'Boss' Tweed. Broadbent is Tweed's spitting image and he makes the grasping old pirate so winning we find ourselves rooting for Tweed against the gaggle of reformers that infest his domain. Though Leonardo DiCaprio is the nominal lead of the picture he is overshadowed by his co-stars. Large, slope shouldered and vaguely brutish looking, DiCaprio is physically perfect for Amsterdam. While he could have used some of the fire and rage of a young James Cagney, DiCaprio's acting is superior throughout the movie. The problem is that Amsterdam just isn't as flashy a role as Bill or Tweed and, as good as DiCaprio is; Day-Lewis operates on a whole other level. Cameron Diaz as the beautiful pickpocket Jenny, never convinces that she is a product of the slums. Despite having considerable screen time, Diaz fades into the background when compared to her more powerful co-stars.
Just as important as the actors are to Gangs is the period atmosphere that drips off the screen. The amazing old New York set has an air of lived in reality that you could cut with a knife. You can almost smell the vermin. Gangs is entirely free of the embalmed feeling you get from most modern period movies. The cast handles the period argot as if it were their true speech and wear their costumes like lived-in clothing. You come away convinced that this is how the world looked and sounded in 1862.
Scorsese does eschew all nuance and subtlety in Gangs. Instead he tells his tale in wide, bold, exploitive and melodramatic strokes that make the movies two and a half hours fly by. Be warned that if you are waiting to see Gangs on DVD you are making a huge mistake. Gangs has to be seen at the theater. The detail and scope of the film cries out to be viewed in all its wide screen glory. This movie is a fantastic achievement.
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