The basic plot involves Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) coming to the streets of New York to avenge the death of his father at the hands of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) sixteen years earlier. Bill doesn't recognise Amsterdam, who manages to worm his way into his life purporting to be a good ally for Bills street gangs, while all the time figuring out how, and when, he wants to reveal his identity and get his revenge. The movie is set at the time when conscription into the army for the civil war first rears its ugly head.
The conscription issue would seemingly remain nothing more than a historical footnote until the story of Amsterdam and Bill is unexpectedly forgotten in the `bigger' picture and the movie concentrates on the riots that plagued the area in this era. And suddenly I was confused. Not because of the plot, it isn't that difficult to follow, but Scorsese had spent so long trying to create the tension between Amsterdam and Bill and appeared to either forget about it, or get bored with it and move onto something new it just didn't make sense. Perhaps the point was supposed to be that the struggles of individual men are nothing compared with the larger issues, perhaps it was there because it was in the book, perhaps Scorsese was trying to give us a history lesson, perhaps it was an excuse for more violence? Basically there seemed to be no clear point in it being there and since the movie was too long anyway (possibly to make it qualify for being the `epic' the film makers so desperately seemed to have wanted) it could have been cut entirely and would have made the film a more manageable length. Compared to something like Titanic, where the story of Jack and Rose was the main bulk, but suddenly the ship began to sink (and if you think that's a spoiler, you really need to attend more history lessons) at least in that instance the main storyline continued to unfold with the sinking lending new opportunities for plot-points, rather than James Cameron saying `let's forget about them for half an hour and do a bit of directorial self-indulgence'. Maybe I've laboured the point a little but if there was one thing that let the movie down for me, this was definitely it.
For the first three quarters, where Bill and Amsterdam are actually concerned in the movie, I was rather enjoying myself. The violence was well shot, brilliantly choreographed and seemed to support the story rather than try to replace it (with the above exception), the cinematography second to none and aside from a few dodgy bits of editing I had few complaints aside from the occasional odd accent. But again, where the conscription was utterly superfluous, so was Cameron Diaz as the wily Jenny Everdeane. It's no comment on her acting, which was okay, but she didn't really need to be there unless to allow boyfriends to convince their girlfriends to come along because there's a sniff of a love story too. Jim Broadbent was memorable as most of the individual performances were, but it wasn't enough to rescue the film from what it tried to be - but ultimately tried too hard.