Gangs of New York

Stars:    Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas
Director:    Martin Scorsese
Screenwriters:   Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan, Steven Zaillian

Make no mistake, Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York is a masterpiece in scope for the amount of research and production design that went into this authentic recreation of New York City circa 1845-60s with all its squalor (mostly) and splendor (a few tidbits here and there). It also contains an acting tour de force by Daniel Day Lewis. Still, this is by no means a great film.

The film follows the story of a young Irish-American immigrant named Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), who returns to the “Five Points” section of New York City in 1863 after a long stint at a church school. He was put there following the death of his father, a priest (Liam Neeson) by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a formidable anti-immigrant gang leader who essentially owns the slum and is ready to do battle with any of the myriad gangs that would hone in on his various criminal enterprises. Young Amsterdam has come seeking revenge for his father’s murder, but instead, he finds an old friend named Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), a lovely pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) who was raised by Cutting in her youth, and a measure of wealth and respect through an unlikely alliance with Cutting, who has taken to treating Amsterdam as the son he never had. While stories of harsh life and useless death unfold in the “Five Points”, the rest of the nation is distracted by Civil War and the upcoming draft threatens city-wide rioting. Bloody gang killings, nasty criminals, hapless workers, crooked politicians, engaging Chinese opera figures, black tap dancers, brothels and lots of unclothed women – the film has a bit of everything for everybody.

Lotta says:  Interesting elements, indeed, but the story is not particularly absorbing and the characters hold little interest; the pages turn and churn but one is never transported into the lives of the occupants. At 165 minutes, the film is brutally long, taking way too much time to show, in numerous different ways, Amsterdam’s growing relationship with Cutting before he’s somehow able to extricate himself and act on his mission. Diaz is woefully miscast. DiCaprio lacks the gutsy look to give his character the edge it needs. Only Day Lewis presents a bold, vivid, full-blooded creature to be taken seriously.

Scorsese has created, with the help of his writers and inspiration from Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book Gangs of New York, a picture window dressed to kill, but it’s all smoke, mirrors and mannequins.

It’s rated R for intense violence, sexuality/nudity, and language. Also features John C. Reilly as Happy Jack, Brendan Gleeson as Monk McGinn and Jim Broadbent as William “Boss” Tweed.

Reviewed 1/2/03