Gangs of New York


Laura Clifford 

Robin Clifford 
In 1848 the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant gang, challenged the Nativists for the right to occupy the Five Points area of Manhattan.  Their cause was lost when their leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson, "K19: The Widowmaker), was slaughtered by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, "The Boxer"). Watching that day was Priest's young son.  Sixteen years later, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to Five Points to avenge his father's murder in director Martin Scorcese's "Gangs of New York."

Martin Scorcese is one of America's greatest auteurs and the long awaited "Gangs of New York" offered hope that he would finally receive his long overdue Oscar.  Unfortunately, "Gangs of New York" doesn't stand with Scorcese's best, although it does feature a towering performance from Daniel Day-Lewis.

Amsterdam Vallon returns to Manhattan after growing up in reform school and gains first the attention, then the trust of Bill the Butcher.  Vallon's identity is only known by his childhood friend Johnny (Henry Thomas, "All the Pretty Horses"), but Johnny's loyalty is weakened when he sees Amsterdam bedding down Jenny (Cameron Diaz, "The Sweetest Thing"), the woman he loves. Amsterdam first tries democracy for the Irish, convincing old friend Monk (Brendan Gleeson, "The General") to run for mayor, but his win is undone in heinous fashion by Bill with the tacit approval of Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent, "Moulin Rouge").  As the draft riots stir New York into an anarchical frenzy, Priest Vallon's son brings the revived Dead Rabbits up against Bill the Butcher once more.

"Gangs of New York" is a hugely ambitious film which sets out to tell the little known history of the birth pains of a great city.  There is much to admire here, yet the pieces never come together to fully form a masterwork. Dante Ferretti's production design is doubtless slavishly faithful to the place and period, yet the aura of a studio setting ("Gangs" was shot at Rome's Cinecitta Studios) cannot be shaken.  Howard Shore's score can be commanding, like the tribal drumming which accompanies the film's first battle, yet more modern, almost techno touches are wildly out of place.  DiCaprio's narration is missing Amsterdam's light Irish lilt.  The screenplay's constant insistence of making Bill the Butcher's reverence for Priest as 'a mighty warrior' be known rings hollow and cliched.  Bill thinks of the Irish as the lowest scrum, people who will do for a nickel what the Blacks used to do for a dime.  There's no groundwork laid for Priest's greatness or Bill's regard for him.  Secondary characters aren't fleshed out or given motivation for switching allegiances.

Despite these faults, "Gangs of New York" is a very good film.  The superior "The Age of Innocence" explored upper class society in about the same time period and this film is its complement, looking at the people who got their hands dirty building a metropolis.  Lady Liberty may have welcomed immigrants, but it is probably little known that they faced extreme violence trying to establish a new home.  The draft riots were largely an Irish immigrant response to the injustice of fighting a war which wealthy Americans could avoid for the sum of $300 and Scorcese shows the new arrivals being shipped out to war on two neighboring piers. Scorcese's images of Blacks being lynched on northern city streets are shocking.  He also provides us with a "Casino" style demonstration of petty thievery wherein Jenny goes 'turtledoving,' dressing as a parlormaid and slipping into an elegant home (Scorcese cameos as the oblivious owner). Bill teaches the art of fighting by butchering a pig.

In addition to all this education, the screenplay (Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan) provides plenty of intriguing set pieces and colorful dialogue.  Bill's shifting relationship with Jenny is set forth via an entertainment at the 16th anniversary of Priest's death.  He calls Jenny to the stage for a knife throwing display which, unlike "Girl on the Bridge," is anything but erotic.  'Have you got the sand to give them a grand finale?' Bill asks the increasingly agitated girl.  Bill's flowery and archaic speech is one of the film's biggest pluses.  After Amsterdam rebels, Bill remarks 'I think it shows dash.  Give the boy time, we'll settle with a good dustup.'

Day-Lewis' performance is incredibly powerful, as if intensified by his five year absence from the screen.  He conjures a mesmerizing accent which defines the development of a region's speech.  His Bill may be brutal, but he also stands fiercely by his beliefs and is capable of finding beauty, even if it's in a cut of beef.  Bill the Butcher is one of the most indelible characters in screen history and Day-Lewis can make one laugh out loud in admiration.  The rougher, meatier DiCaprio is solid as Amsterdam and Diaz is believable as the coquettish pickpocket, but their romance never really sparks.  The notable supporting players are Broadbent as the colorfully corrupt Tweed, Cara Seymour ("American Psycho") as Hellcat Maggie and Gary Lewis ("Billy Elliot") as McGloin, a particularly racist member of Bill's gang.

Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus aids Ferretti's period design with steely exteriors and gloomy interiors warmed by lit fuel.  Sandy Powell's costume design is fabulous, from Bill's windowpane pants and stovepipe hat that give him the appearance of a circus stilt walker to the red stripes and blue blotches that mark the gangs.

Scorcese has wisely retained his closing shot, which shows the build up of lower Manhattan through pre-September 11.


Gang wars, political corruption and the infamous New York draft riots are the backdrop for director Martin Scorcese's long anticipated and long awaited tale of revenge in 1860s New York City. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), as a boy, witnessed the brutal death of his beloved father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), at the hands of the notorious gang leader William Cutting, AKA Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Now grown up and a graduate of the Hellgate House of Reform, young Vallon comes back for Bill's blood in "Gangs of New York."

It has been near two years since I heard about Marty Scorcese's mission to bring a bit of unknown Americana to the big screen. Delays in production of the massive effort caused one proposed release date after another to be passed by, until now. I had hopes of this being a major opus for one of America's preeminent filmmakers but was worried about the postponements. Unfortunately, "Gangs of New York" falls short of the mark of such greats by the director as "Raging Bull" and "The Age of Innocence."

It isn't that "Gangs" is a bad movie. As a matter of fact, it is an opulently executed, finely crafted film that looks spectacular. The issues stem from things like the staging of the big scenes that has an artificiality that keeps the viewer at arm's length.

The action takes place, primarily, in the notorious Five Points section of south Manhattan. The film opens with Priest Vallon and his Irish Catholic followers girding for battle against the "Natives," an American-born gang, led by Bill the Butcher, that wants the city cleansed of the invading Hibernians. The rival factions face off in Paradise Square, armed to the teeth with knives, swords, axes and cudgels. A bloody battle ensues and ends with many dead and injured, including Priest at the Butcher's own hand. Bill, the victor, shows compassion and sends the younger Vallon away to get an "education" at the Hellgate School. 16 years later, the now adult Amsterdam returns to the Five Points but his real identity is an unknown with many thinking that he is just another ignorant Irish immigrant.

The story continues as Amsterdam joins a gang of tough thugs and insinuates himself into the fold of the Natives, getting close to Bill. >From here, the tale splits between Amsterdam's relationship with his now mentor, Bill, the plans to avenge Priest's death and the historical events of the time.

In 1863 New York City, Tammany Hall, under the command of "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent), is in cahoots with Bill and his gang of Natives, controlling the city and its voters in the worst case of political corruption in America's history. The two factions, politicos and thugs, are struggling to control the populous that is growing in leaps and bounds with the influx of tens of thousands of starving Irish immigrants. But, Tweed sees the political reality of the mass migration and shifts his loyalty from the Natives to garnering the good will (and their votes) of the newly arrived Irish turned Americans. Ill will builds between Boss Tweed and Bill the Butcher.

Meanwhile, America is split in two and the North is fighting for its very existence against the rebellious South. To feed the Union Army's unrelenting need for more and more human cannon fodder, President Lincoln introduces the nation's first Draft Act and calls upon all able-bodied men (especially the Irish) to join the fight against the Confederacy. A loop hole in the law allows a draftee to buy his way out of the army for a mere $300, a sum that few can muster. The inequities of the new law spark insurrection in New York and the people take to the streets, murdering Irishmen and blacks indiscriminately. The Army is called into the fray and a four-day bloodbath ensues.

These historical events are the backdrop for the personal story as Amsterdam struggles with his need to avenge his father's death at Bill's hand and the admiration he develops for Priest's slayer. Bill treats young Vallon like the son he never had and the younger man is conflicted. Amsterdam also falls for the wily, street-wise charms of Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pretty thief and pickpocket whom Vallon first mistrusts then falls for. This romance turns out to be his undoing, though, when his closest friend, Johnny (Henry Thomas, learns of the tryst. Johnny has always loved Jenny from afar and is struck down by his friend's betrayal in taking "his girl." He tells Bill of Vallon's true identity but the forthcoming confrontation is overshadowed by the events of the day.

The performance by these, and other, characters in "Gangs" are capably handled by all with one exemplary exception. Daniel Day-Lewis, as Bill the Butcher, is really a supporting character in the film but the actor puts such a strong signature on the role that he elevates it to the status of best actor accreditation. Bill is ruthlessly violent and will kill a man as much as look at him but Day-Lewis gives many other layers to his performance. Bill can be cruel, kind, malicious, loyal and patriotic as he struts about his turf, meting out praise and punishment as he sees fit. Day-Lewis gives his character an accent that is the seed for the future New Yawk speech that was born in the Five Points. His costumes (expertly designed, with all the rest, by Sandy Powell) accentuate his height with garishly colored and patterned frock and topped with exaggeratedly tall stovepipe hats. When Bill is on the screen, he is the center of attention.

Leo DiCaprio, as the focal character, Amsterdam Fallon, acquits himself well enough but is hard pressed to match the utter presence of Day-Lewis. The younger actor has charisma and his own presence on the screen but the masterly performance of his costar is hard to beat. Cameron Diaz, as Jenny, comes across well for the first half of the film as she and Amsterdam do their mating dance, but her character is relegated to being a nursemaid in the second half. There is no real chemistry between Leo and Cameron.

The supporting cast has its share of capable character actors giving life to their roles. Jim Broadbent is convincing as Boss Tweed as he shows up whenever the political expediency moves him or when there is a bit of bacchanal to attend. Tweed exudes corruption even as he makes compassionate statements of giving the poor, starving immigrants some bread and soup to assuage their hunger. But, you know it is just an ulterior motive to maintain his power base and strangle hold on the burgeoning city. John C. Reilly is corrupt cop Happy Jack who was spawned from Priest's gang, the Dead Rabbits, only to become a police officer. He uses his position of authority for his own, personal gain as he frequently dips his beak into the trough of corruption. Brendan Gleeson, as Monk McGinn is a bit too ambiguous as another of the power mongers in the Five Points. Gary Lewis, as Bill's right-hand henchman Charles McGloin, displays the fierce loyalty that would befit a man in his position to do the Butcher's bidding. The background characters look grimy enough as they beat each other senseless but are never made real, contributing to the artificial feel.

"Gangs of New York" was shot at Italy's film center at Cinicetta Studios outside of Rome and, as opulent and well done as the movie is, it feels like it was shot on a set. That being said, the technical side of the fence is populated with a bevy of master film craftsmen and artists. Lensing, by Scorcese alumnus Michael Ballhaus, is stunning as it captures the action of the gang wars, the draft insurrection and the army's bloody effort to quell the outbreak. Dante Ferreti does a splendid job in creating the mid-19th century world of New Your City. Sandy Powell's costuming, especially for the title gangs, has the same exaggerated look that gave such a classy touch to "The Warriors" a quarter of a century ago. Musical scoring, by Howard Shore, is a hit or miss proposition with modern rock music interspersed with period compositions`.

I, like everyone who has anticipated the arrival of "Gangs of New York" to the screen, had high hopes of seeing a masterpiece from a filmmaking master. There are elements of greatness, in part, but my highest praise is for Daniel Day-Lewis in his smashing depiction of Bill the Butcher. I give it a B.

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