December 30, 2002 -- "Gangs of New York" is a mythic tale of tribal warfare in the streets of the Big Apple. Whether or not any of the events depicted in this movie, to the extent they are based in fact, have any bearing on events today is questionable. Even if you don't believe that "America was born in the streets," it is a great yarn just the same. It is one of the best films of the year.
Based on Herbert Asbury's book, the movie is set in the Five Points area of New York City in the early 1860s. The opening scene, set 16 years earlier, is a bloody battle between Irish newcomers to the city and the established "native" group of whites led by William "The Butcher" Cutting (brilliantly played by Daniel Day-Lewis of "The Boxer"). The leader of the Irish, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson of "Star Wars Episode One, The Phantom Menace") is killed by Cutting, and his young son, Amsterdam, vows revenge. We pick up the now-grown Amsterdam, now played by Leonardo DiCaprio of "Catch Me if You Can," as he has just returned to Five Points to settle his score with Cutting, 16 years after his father was killed.
Instead of challenging Cutting to a duel, he worms his way into Cutting's mob, becoming Cutting's trusted right hand man. Cutting, of course, is unaware of Amsterdam's real identity. Along the way, Amsterdam falls in love with a friend of Cutting's, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz of "Vanilla Sky"). Jenny is a tough, but resourceful pickpocket and scam artist. Five Points is a lawless area where gangs rule and Cutting's gang is the toughest of all. More than a street thug, Cutting knows his way around high society as well, and he knows the corrupt politicians of Tammany Hall. He delivers votes for them in the elections. The movie also shows us the corruption in the local volunteer fire departments, which were also controlled by street gangs. The gangs would sometimes fight for the right to loot burning buildings. They would fight in front of the buildings as they burned down. It was organized crime on a grand scale, with each gang ruling its little piece of turf in the city.
The movie's climax, the battle between the forces led by Amsterdam and Cutting, takes place at the same time as another epic battle, the New York City draft riots of 1863. The riots lasted four days and a lot of people died. They came about because of the first military draft ever instituted in America, for the Civil War. The rich could avoid the draft altogether by paying $300, but the poor didn't have that option, and they rebelled. The riots were ugly. Mobs attacked the rich, and also blacks, on whom they blamed the war. In the midst of a battle between gangs for control of the street, cannon fire erupts from federal war ships in the harbor. They fire on the city in an attempt to quell the draft riots. It is a remarkable scene in the movie, made possible through digital effects.
At the heart of the film is the complex, dynamic relationship between Cutting and Amsterdam. Cutting becomes like a father to Amsterdam and develops a real affection for the younger man. Cutting sees a lot of himself in Amsterdam. Amsterdam becomes Cutting's protege, his most trusted confident. It is a strange situation, reminiscent of the relationship between Long John Silver and Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island. Daniel Day-Lewis' portrayal of Cutting is magnificent. It is a wonderful part and Day-Lewis plays it to the hilt. Cutting is a highly complex character with a certain uncompromising nobility. Of course, he is a merciless murderer, but he does follow a strict set of rules and principles. This may be Cameron Diaz's best performance ever. The romance between her character and DiCaprio's is a very effective element of the movie.
Other characters of note in the film are Happy Jack (John C. Reilly of "Magnolia"), a former gang member who becomes a corrupt cop, Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson of "A.I."), a former gang member who becomes a businessman and politician, Hellcat Maggie (Cara Seymour of "Dancer in the Dark"), a ferocious street fighter who becomes a businesswoman of sorts. One of the interesting things about the film is how many of the gang members from the first scene of the movie work their way up in wealth and influence 16 years later. In doing so, however, they lose their fighting edge they had in their younger days. They become dissipated, a shadow of their former selves. The film has impeccable production values with effective digital scenes, great production design by Dante Ferretti, his fifth film with Director Martin Scorsese. He also collaborated with Scorsese on "The Age of Innocence," "Casino,"'Kundun" and "Bringing Out the Dead." Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus has completed six films with Scorsese, "After Hours," "The Color of Money," "The Last Temptation of Christ," "GoodFellas" and "The Age of Innocence," along with "Gangs of New York." Academy Award-winning costume designer Sandy Powell (she won for "Shakespeare in Love") produced some very interesting costumes for this film. This is one of the best films of the year. It rates an A.
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