(2002) Historical Drama (Miramax) Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, David Hemmings, Cara Seymour. Directed by Martin Scorsese
It’s a myth that immigrants have always been welcomed to America with open arms. Immigrants have all too often been sneered at, spat upon and been the victims of violence. Still, nobody can argue that immigrants were the bricks that built America. Every European-descended American citizen has an immigrant somewhere in their family tree. Gangs of New York is a story of some of those who built modern America, and it isn’t pretty.
In the mid-1800s, Priest Vallon (Neeson) wants his Irish comrades in the Five Points section of New York to be left alone. He wants freedom from the harassment of the Nativists, led by “Butcher” Bill Cutting (Day-Lewis). The two warring factions decide to settle their differences the old-fashioned way — on the field of battle.
Vallon is backed by his lieutenant, Happy Jack (Reilly) and the mercenary Monk McGinn (Gleeson) who fight passionately but to no avail – the Nativists carry the day after Cutting cuts down the Priest. Vallon’s son is taken away to Hellgate to be raised as an orphan.
Forward to 1862. The Civil War is in full fury, and the word of the day is conscription. Irish immigrants continue to pour into New York, at a rate of 15,000 a week; ongoing for the 15 years since the potato famine of Black ’47. The son of Vallon, Amsterdam (DiCaprio) has grown to manhood and intends to infiltrate Butcher Bill’s gang, and then strike at his father’s killer when the time is right. Amsterdam meets a thief and cutpurse, Jenny Everdeane (Diaz) from whom he initially recoils, but the two fall deeply in love true to Hollywood form.
Cutting has made an alliance with Boss Tweed (Broadbent) of Tammany Hall to deliver crucial votes in the upcoming election in exchange for political protection. However, the coming conscription is making everyone uneasy. Many don’t want to fight for the rights of blacks, who are despised nearly as much as the Irish.
Still, Amsterdam quickly becomes one of Butcher Bill’s best men, and the gang leader takes a liking to the young man, in almost a father-son relationship. Eventually, he discovers the true identity of Amsterdam and all hell breaks loose, leading to a confrontation. Unfortunately, the two leaders pick a bad day for a fight – a riot has broken over the conscription act, and federal troops move in. A fight for survival becomes even more harrowing.
Director Martin Scorsese does an incredible job of evoking 1862 New York City. He establishes a realistic depiction, down to the language and idioms of the dialogue. The costumes, the sets, all reek of authenticity. Of course, there is a great deal of violence, which is to be expected. There is also a surprising amount of nudity, particularly in the bordellos where some of the movie is takes place.
The cast is marvelous. Daniel Day-Lewis gives his most electrifying performance since The Last of the Mohicans and one of his finest ever, pointing out what a shame it is he doesn’t do more movies. DiCaprio doesn’t have to carry this movie due to Day-Lewis’ presence and as a result delivers a more relaxed performance, paving the way for a long association between him and Scorsese. Reilly, Broadbent, Gleeson and Henry Thomas (as a friend of Amsterdam’s) all do solid work.
The problem here is the love story. It’s extraneous, and detracts from the movie overall. The Jenny Everdeane character exists only to be DiCaprio’s love interest, and doesn’t contribute much to the story. It’s billed as a love triangle, but the movie would have worked just as well, if not better, without it. Some of the 2-hour, 46-minute run time could easily have been excised.
Martin Scorsese is considered by some to be the greatest American film director of all time, and Gangs of New York does nothing to diminish that claim; in fact, over the years it’s become a movie that many consider to be one of his finest – certainly it stands up well with some of his better-known movies like Taxi Driver and The Departed. It’s an amazing epic that never averts its eyes from the seamier sides of the story, but refuses to wallow in them either.
WHY RENT THIS: Amazing performance by Day-Lewis. Perfect capture of an era long gone. One of Scorsese’s finest and that’s saying quite a lot.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A superfluous love triangle. Runs a little bit too long.
FAMILY MATTERS: There’s a whole lot of violence, some of it quite graphic. There’s also some sexuality and a surfeit of nudity, along with a few curse words.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The sets of old New York were actually built on the lot at Cinecitta studios in Rome. George Lucas visited the set during filming and reportedly said to Scorsese “You know, sets like that can be done with computers now.”
NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There’s a 30-minute Discovery Channel documentary on the real gangs of New York, a U2 music video, a featurette on the Five Points area where the filmwas set, and a featurette on the immense sets at Cinecitta with Scorsese conducting a personal tour of the sets and relating stories from the production.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $193.8M on a $100M production budget; the film was just shy of breaking even during it’s theatrical run, although it almost certainly turned a profit on it’s home video release.
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10