I love Martin Scorsese films. Most of his films, that is. Ever since I saw RAGING BULL (1980) Scorsese's biopic about boxer Jake LaMotta, I've been captivated by Scorsese's filmmaking style. The way he moves the camera in his films. The editing and pace of his films. The staccato bursts of violence in his films. So you would think a big Martin Scorsese fan like me would have rushed out to see GANGS OF NEW YORK (2002), right? Wrong. For some reason, I was turned off by the period of the film. The gangs that I enjoyed Scorsese showing me in GOOD FELLAS (1990) were from the 1950's and 60's. Why did I want to see gangs from the mid-19th century with mutton chop sideburns and handle bar moustaches? I think I may have had bad dreams of Scorsese's previous period film THE AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993) that was too slow and Victorian for my liking. But I have my son Chris to thank for giving me a second chance on GANGS OF NEW YORK. He had seen it on TV and liked it and recommended I watch it. It's funny because I keep trying to get him to watch GOOD FELLAS. He still hasn't.
GANGS OF NEW YORK, although a work of fiction, is also an interesting history lesson about a real place and period of time in New York that may not be well known to most people. It's about the birth of New York City during the turbulent period around the Civil War when various ethnic groups were wrestling for control of the city in a time of lawlessness. GANGS is Scorsese's attempt at a Spielberg type epic with maybe a touch of Sergio Leone. GANGS was a pet project of Scorsese's and who better to make a historical film about New York City than one of its greatest New York born directors.
GANGS OF NEW YORK begins with a bang in 1846 on a cold day in the Five Points section of lower Manhattan. A battle is about to be waged between a gang of Irish immigrants known as the Dead Rabbits led by the noble "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson) against another gang known as the Natives led by the charismatic but vicious Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). Known as the Battle of the Five Points, the fight is savage and brutal and Priest is killed by Bill. Priest's young son witnesses his father's death and the boy is whisked away to a reform school with the hope he'll forget the events of that day.
The film jumps ahead sixteen years to 1862 as Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), the young boy who witnessed his father's death, is released from Hellgate School of Reform. Amsterdam returns to Five Points just as thousands of Irish and Germans are streaming into New York City ports every day. On a grander scale, the Civil War and its effect on the young United States begins to permeate the city. New York City is run by the corrupt but affable William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and his Tammany political party but the Five Points is controlled by Bill the Butcher and his gang of Natives. Amsterdam Vallon has returned to Five Points with vengeance on his mind, revenge against Bill Cutting, the man who killed his father Priest. Amsterdam hooks up with childhood friend Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas) and the two of them begin working for Bill's gang, stealing from burning houses and even selling dead bodies to medical schools with Bill getting a cut of their share. A beautiful Irish pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) also captures the hearts of both young men but she has ties to Bill too.
As young Vallon begins to plot his revenge against Bill, Bill takes Amsterdam under his wing. Bill doesn't know Amsterdam's true identity. Vallon begins to fall under the spell of his father's killer as Bill becomes a father figure to Amsterdam, showing him how to rule and protect their tribes (people) while still having their hands in every type of vice. Amsterdam even saves Bill's life from a would-be assassin. But when Bill confides to Amsterdam his respect for the dead Priest, young Vallon is refocused to kill the Butcher. Jenny has taken a liking to Vallon over Johnny and in a moment of jealousy, Johnny reveals Amsterdam's true identity to Bill. When Vallon tries to kill Bill on the anniversary of the Battle of Five Points, Bill and his gang are ready. Bill scars Amsterdam but allows him to live, casting him out of his gang.
Jenny helps Vallon recuperate and one of Priest's former fighting comrades Hank "Monk" McGinn (Brendan Gleeson) gives him a memento from his father - his razor. Vallon resurrects the Dead Rabbits gang and aligns himself with Boss Tweed who has grown weary of Bill's bloody and unpopular antics. Meanwhile, the city becomes a dynamite keg ready to explode as the poor and destitute protest the rich living the high life while the poor are drafted to fight in the Civil War. When Bill commits an outrageous murder, Vallon and the Dead Rabbits challenge Bill and the Natives to another fight. But this time, the civil unrest in Manhattan boils over into this battle as the Navy fires upon the Five Points and a mob riots for four days in New York.
Scorsese is at his best when he and long time editor and collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker use narration and editing to express lots of expository information quickly to the audience. Whether it be explaining how the mob operations worked in GOOD FELLAS or how Las Vegas casinos do things in CASINO (1995), Scorsese and Schoomaker are the masters of exposition. In GANGS, there is a nice one to two minute sequence where young Vallon describes the various gangs in New York (the Bowery Boys, the Swamp Angels, the Plug Uglies, the Forty Thieves) and the different ways the gangs steal and plunder. In a short amount of time, we know more about the people living and working in Five Points then we did before.
Historical detail is vital to GANGS OF NEW YORK and the hair, costume, and production design are woven seamlessly into the film taking the audience completely to another time. Production Designer Dante Ferretti recreated the Five Points district on the Cinecitta Studios lot in Rome and the buildings and cobblestone streets and even ships are amazingly accurate. The three screenwriters - Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Longeran weave many historical facts into this rich story. New York City had no city fire department but instead competing fire brigades usually led by rival gangs or political groups who would more often fight each other before trying to save a burning building together. Boss Tweed and Bill Cutting are based on real life people.
GANGS uses the Dead Rabbits/Natives quarrel as a continuation of the Catholic versus Protestant conflict that many Irish thought they were escaping when they came to America. As Monk McGinn says, "We never expected it to follow us here. It didn't. It was waiting for us when we landed." Bill's Native Americans are the people who fought to establish America and democracy and now they don't like sharing their food or jobs with the onslaught of new immigrants. But it's also a foreshadowing of what still exists today with Bill the Butcher and his gang representing those who want to keep immigrants out and Amsterdam Vallon and his gang symbolizing other voices who seem more compassionate toward different cultures. Even the Civil War subplot with the poor and newly arrived immigrants being conscripted into the Union army to be shipped off and fight while the sons of the wealthy stay home will be revisited during the Vietnam War.
Scorsese builds up so much momentum in the first half of GANGS that the film loses a bit of steam when Amsterdam tries to kill the Butcher (who's trade in the film is that of a meat butcher). Bill is such an interesting character that we almost don't want Amsterdam to try to kill him and it's anti-climactic when he does. Like many Scorsese films such as TAXI DRIVER (1976) or THE DEPARTED (2006) , GANGS OF NEW YORK builds to a bloody and violent finale. Surprisingly, the film's opening battle which I expected to be very gory with everyone carrying axes and knives is shot and edited with very little gratuitous blood. But the final confrontation between young Vallon and Bill is less than spectacular as their battle gets caught up in the bigger riot inflaming New York. Vallon and Bill's personal war gets lost in the dust and smoke. Perhaps Scorsese didn't want to repeat the same battle like in the opening but he loses some of the drama in Amsterdam and Bill's final conflict.
Leonardo DiCaprio has become Scorsese's new favorite lion (having made four films now with Scorsese) replacing Robert DeNiro who had made eight films with Scorsese. GANGS was their first collaboration and DiCaprio is strong enough to handle the different emotional levels needed to play the vengeful son Amsterdam. Daniel Day Lewis as Bill gives another powerhouse performance. Bill the Butcher is almost the devil incarnate and in one scene as Bill headbutts Amsterdam repeatedly in the head, Bill's face covered in blood with his black beard and eyebrows, he looks like the devil effigy hanging outside of his Satan's Garden establishment.
Cameron Diaz gives a nice, low-key performance as Jenny Everdeane. It's nice to see Diaz in a strong dramatic role. Like Sharon Stone in CASINO, Scorsese's casting choice of Diaz who had previously done romantic comedies is inspired and she rewards him with a nice performance. GANGS supporting cast is exemplary as well. Brendan Gleeson as Walter "Monk" McGinn, John C. Reilly as Happy Jack Mulraney, and Gary Lewis as McGloin are all fantastic as former Dead Rabbit members who have chosen different paths and alliances in those 16 years since the first Five Points Battle. And Jim Broadbent as Boss Tweed wields more power with his tongue and political savvy then any axe or club. "The appearance of law must be upheld, especially when it's being broken," Boss Tweed says. Broadbent's Boss gets many of the best lines in the film.
I was completely swept up in the story GANGS OF NEW YORK had to tell. It's not a typical Martin Scorsese film, more epic in scope than some of his more personal New York stories but it has many of the familiar themes and visual motifs Martin Scorsese fans will recognize.