Martin Scorsese's latest epic of the streets, Gangs of New York, means to show us how a great metropolis was forged in the mid-19th century cauldrons of unbridled greed, ethnic violence and Civil War. It means to give us the City as wild frontier -- without the usual cowboy hats.
This is a tall order, and the filmmaker's ambition begins to look oversized, if not unmanageable, right from the start. He stages a pitched battle between a gang of Nativists of English descent and a gang of scrappy Irish immigrants called the Dead Rabbits that turns their rude little corner of lower Manhattan, the Five Points, into a medieval killing field. If you think Scorsese's small-time mafiosi were ruthless, wait until you see what these guys do to each other on winter day in 1846 with axes, clubs, daggers and maces. Their war trophies include ears and noses.
The problem here lies not in the abundance of blood -- we've seen that before -- but in the film's pounding insistence, which prevails for all of its two hours and 40 minutes, that we also absorb a rather thin and unreliable history lesson. There's certainly nothing wrong with learning something at the movies, but Scorsese and his team of three screenwriters -- Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian (Schindler's List) and Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) -- are far more inclined to romance (including the romance of violence) than to fact, and in the end we learn about as much regarding the Draft Riots of 1863, or the emergence of Irish political power in New York, as we learned about the Civil War in Gone With the Wind. Seen one way, Gangs serves up bogus history in the old Hollywood style. Seen another, it's an extended infomercial for cutlery products.
That doesn't mean, however, that Scorsese's oft-delayed, $100 million dollar baby is a flop. He has dreamed of making this picture for 25 years, ever since coming under the spell of Herbert Asbury's rather less heroic 1928 book about ethnic warfare in 19th-century New York, and his strengths as a moviemaker are evident even as his larger social purposes go awry. Just as he did in the tough Queens barrooms of GoodFellas and the tea-sipping salons of The Age of Innocence, this most obsessive and observant of movie directors keeps a firm grasp on the codes of tribal ritual. And if any filmmaker can coax better performances from actors, he hasn't shown up yet.
Taken as a bloody slice of 19th-century street life rather than as carved-in-stone history, Gangs comes off as stimulating entertainment, complete with such colorful period details as bare-knuckle boxing, the wiles of female pickpockets and the proper method of butchering a pig carcass. Asbury's brutish book, which has attracted a new cult of readers, is full of such minutiae, but it has virtually nothing to say about New York City's troubled rise to greatness. That's all Scorsese -- in his new role as the poet of urban mysticism, a kind of Walt Whitman of the movies.
The central characters, while nicely drawn, don't generally surprise. The blond matinee idol Leonardo DiCaprio, thicker and beefier now, stars as the hero, one Amsterdam Vallon, an orphaned tough who returns after 16 years in reform school to the rough-and-tumble world of the Five Points in order to avenge the death of his father (Liam Neeson). An inspirational Irish warrior, Priest Vallon was slain in the gang fight that opens the film. We also get Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a quick-fingered swindler and whore with a heart of, well, gold plate, who's destined to become young Fallon's love interest. Their common antagonist (and the movie's most vivid presence) is a vicious Nativist bigot named William Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) -- "Bill the Butcher" to his intimates -- whose vast street power and whose alliance with the corrupt major domo of Tammany Hall, William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent), prefigure the mob godfathers to come in the next century. It was the Butcher who killed Amsterdam's father before the boy's very eyes, and Amsterdam means to kill him, in ritual style. But first Scorsese and his writers lay on some familiar Oedipal melodrama as the kid playacts at becoming Bill's surrogate son and it comes to light that Jenny, too, was once the Butcher's surrogate daughter -- among other things.
As portrayed by Day-Lewis, who came out of premature retirement to play this part, Bill the Butcher is a curious mixture of contradictions that befit what Scorsese sees as a defining moment in the city's (and the country's) history. With his pirate's mustache and jaunty stovepipe hats, he is at once a man of honor and an outright savage -- an early model for Jake LaMotta, perhaps. But these are the 1860s, so Bill's intriguing patois combines the niceties of the drawing room with the crude expletives of emerging American street vernacular. The tongue-lashing he gives to Happy Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly), a crooked cop on the payroll, contains this hybrid gem: "I don't give a damn about your moral conundrum, you meatheaded shit sack." Meanwhile, he calls Amsterdam "another bastard son of Erin I folded in my embrace."
Ah, yes, Our Hero. After fighting his way through production designer Dante Ferretti's impressive collection of filthy tenements, bloody slaughterhouses and violent saloons, Amsterdam Vallon finds his true calling. First he must slay Bill the Butcher, the king of the old guard. Then, bloodied but unbowed, he must take Jenny into his embrace and lead his people up from slavery. The pseudo-biblical elements of this quest, combined with the broader turmoil of the Civil War, make for a rather muddied political picture. But atmosphere always outranks plot in a Scorsese movie, and he deftly keeps us on the hook with a dazzling fury of lynchings, riots, cannon fusillades, political assassinations and sexual assignations -- all of them calculated to keep our blood pressure high and our eyes glued to the screen. Scorsese's bloody, bombastic vision of an urban behemoth on the make may be confused and overwrought, but the long wait for Gangs is not without its rewards.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.