“The Gang’s All Here”
by Scott Mantz

“Gangs of New York”
Leonardo DiCaprio
Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Street Fighting Men! Daniel Day-Lewis takes Leonardo DiCaprio under his wing in “Gangs of New York”

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A good solid year after it was originally supposed to open, Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited epic “Gangs of New York” is finally here, and it brings with it enough hype to rival that of “Titanic” five years ago. Like that film, “Gangs” was plagued by massive production problems and an escalating budget. In addition, both films were directed by notorious perfectionists who went head-to-head with the studio heads footing the bill, and of course, both films starred none other than the King of the World himself, Leonardo DiCaprio.

Beyond that, Scorsese’s labor of love seems unlikely to match the box office success of James Cameron’s doomed boat trip. All the same, “Gangs of New York” is still an incredible cinematic achievement that’s grand in almost every way a movie can possibly be grand. Between the sets, the costumes, the cinematography, the music, the cast of thousands, and finally, the buckets of blood that were used to soak the actors, no one will ever question Scorsese as to where all the money went.

Yet for all its grandeur, “Gangs” is still missing something. It’s hard not to be impressed by such an ambitious Hollywood production, but the human element of the story gets lost in a film that’s congested with too many characters, too much information and enough bloodshed to make “Braveheart” look like “Bambi.” It’s an assault on the senses that loses its emotional focus and becomes a victim of its own aspirations, and as a result, it only ends up being a good movie that has moments of greatness.

Life was cheap on the mean streets of mid-1800’s New York City, where gang leaders where constantly fighting for control of their city blocks. One such fight took place in the poverty-stricken area of Lower Manhattan called the Five Points, where the American-born Nativists, led by William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), a.k.a. “Bill the Butcher,” squared off against the Irish-born Dead Rabbits, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Sixteen years after his father is killed by the victorious Cutting, young Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) embarks on a bloody mission of vengeance that will put his own loyalties to the ultimate test.

If nothing else, “Gangs of New York” earns high marks for being such an informative account of what is an otherwise overlooked period of US history. While Amsterdam weaves his way into Cutting’s good graces, a vast array of racial, religious and political upheavals are brewing to a boiling point that will culminate in the massive Civil War Draft Riots of 1863. The historical background of this 4-day conflict is nothing short of fascinating, especially when you consider that this was the wake-up call that the city needed in order to unify and become the sprawling metropolis it is today.

“Gangs of New York” is so full of visual and informational detail that the performances almost become secondary. That is, all but one. After a 5-year absence from the big screen, Daniel Day-Lewis is back in a big way with what has to be the performance of his career (and with a track record that includes “My Left Foot” and “The Last of the Mohicans,” that’s saying a lot). As Bill the Butcher, he is so well-rounded, you find yourself torn between admiring him, fearing him, and ultimately, wanting to see him die a horrible death.

Unfortunately, the rest of the performances get lost in the shuffle and fail to resonate on an emotional level. Despite an admirable turn as the revenge-fueled Amsterdam, Leonardo DiCaprio drowns in a sea of cinematic chaos. To his credit, he grows into his role and is convincing enough with his slight Irish accent, but the moment Daniel Day-Lewis appears on the screen, all bets are off. The same goes for Cameron Diaz, who barely registers as the professional pick-pocket who falls for DiCaprio, and their romance fails to ignite what is an otherwise dark and grimy film.

Given Martin Scorsese’s vast body of work, it’s hard to believe that he’s never won an Academy Award. That may change with “Gangs of New York.” Though it’s not quite the masterpiece that he was shooting for, only his experience and 30 year passion for the project could have yielded what at times can be a breathtaking achievement. Seeing how the Academy tends to honor filmmakers for that very reason, this may just be the film that will earn Scorsese his long-overdue golden guy.

…so like I said, start spreading the news.