Because Martin Scorsese’s blood runs Big Apple red, it’s a remarkable coincidence his first project following September 11 is Gangs of New York, a magnificent drama that seems to spring directly from the panic, violence, pain, and fear the terrorist attacks wrought on the director’s hometown. In the wake of 9/11, the master of Mean Streets was almost expected to weigh in and help close the door on our national tragedy.
Over the course of his career, Scorsese has proven he fully understands the tension that once fuelled – and continues to fuel – this powder keg of a city. With Gangs, he rewinds the clocks to present a vicious social and political history lesson that retraces New York’s early steps in an effort to better understand the many ingredients of the current Melting Pot.
Let’s not get too serious, though. Gangs also works as a simple vengeance picture inflated to serious epic status by its rich set design and stunning period detail. The action begins in 1846 at the so-called Battle of Five Points. Bill ‘The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) leads his proud natives against a band of lowly foreigners – predominantly Irish – and their leader ‘Priest’ Vallon (Liam Neeson). By the end of the day, Five Points will be christened with the blood of hundreds, and Vallon will die at Cutting’s hands.
Watching in the wings during the Five Points conflict is Vallon’s son, Amsterdam. The stunned child grows into a bitter young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) who’s only concern is vengeance. To get ‘The Butcher,’ Amsterdam must get close to the man he’s been conditioned to hate.
Once the groundwork is laid between Cutting and Amsterdam, Scorsese can’t resist exploring his surroundings. The Gangs screenplay dabbles in dirty politics, fixed elections, dramatic shifts in power, and the ever-present Civil War. This New York – much like ours – is a city of tribes. All races live en masse, bound by racist hatred and violence. President Lincoln and his blessed Union are criticized by bigots who fear the abolition of slavery. Territorial spats trigger violent confrontations, and corruption rules.
Scorsese’s grand vision also provides a number of distractions to Amsterdam’s mission. His father’s old gang, the Dead Rabbits, has been scattered to all corners of Five Points. His dalliance with the gorgeous pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) is heating up. And he’s surprised at how much he enjoys being a member of Cutting’s inner circle.
Gangs gets slightly bogged down by Amsterdam’s budding relationship with Cutting, but the director’s meanderings are kept interesting by Day-Lewis’s mesmerizing performance. Cutting is the prototype New Yorker who steps off the boat from a distant country, only to turn around and tell the other ‘foreigners’ to go back where they came from.
Best Actor Oscars were created specifically for performances like the one Day-Lewis gives in Gangs. He’s pop culture’s answer to Hannibal Lecter, the next Darth Vader in the realm of cinematic baddies. The unpredictable Cutting is pure evil with a thick stew of an accent and a cocky swagger that barely bottles his barn-busting confidence. Look into his eye (the other one’s fake because he plucked it out), and behold the true soul of a psychopath.
DiCaprio matures in his role, and provides Cutting with an appropriate foil. The two adversaries are like sparks in a room filled with gunpowder. DiCaprio and Diaz do struggle through a tacked-on romance that’s unforced, but also wholly unnecessary. No one’s paying attention with ‘The Butcher’ around. Who wants to waste time watching the right fielder or the shortstop when the pitcher’s throwing a perfect game?
Gangs is Scorsese’s most complete effort in years, the first (and only) ‘must-see’ movie of 2002. By recreating the early days of Manhattan, the director has laced a tragic, over-the-top dance of consuming vengeance and death into the fabric of a gorgeous, courageous period piece. And I’m in it. Well, sort of. In one unintentionally funny scene, my name was shouted by a Union general who was recruiting reluctant Irish draftees for the Civil War. A critic’s duty to serve never ends.
Scorsese offers a commentary track on the DVD (which spans two discs), plus a boatload of extras. Notable among them are a Discovery Channel show about ‘the real’ gangs of New York and the violence which plagued the city at the time, plus tons of little featurettes about the miticulously crafted Five Points sets and the real streets that inspired them. Check out the Five Points vocabulary feature to pepper your slang with some new jargon.
Manhattan tea party.