Gangs of New York
directed by Martin Scorsese
(Miramax, 2002)

Gangs of New York shines a bright light on a dirty, hidden secret of New York City's bloody, brawling past.

The movie starts with a vicious gang war, during which Irish immigrant Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) is killed by native hoodlum Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in a clash for control of the streets of Five Points, a ghetto that hardly seems worth fighting for. Vallon's orphaned son, Amsterdam, is sent to a reform house for education; he is released years later, now grown into a 20-something Leonardo DiCaprio.

The Civil War is raging in the South, but that means little to the groundlings who scrabble to survive in the slums of New York's poorer sections. Prejudice runs rampant in the streets, not only against the blacks but against the "foreigners" arriving in droves in the harbor each day. "Natives" (whose forefathers arrived on the boat a century or so before) despise the fresh waves of immigrants, particularly the starving Irish who fled famine at home and now take jobs in the States. New draft legislation, which lets the rich buy their way out of service while the poor march off to die for a cause they don't support, is the spark that ignites an inferno of violence in the city.

Amsterdam returns to Five Points and, while revenge is foremost on his mind, he finds himself becoming a trusted member of Cutting's inner circle. Cutting -- like his downtown counterpart William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who buys and sells votes and moves people like pawns across New York's chessboard streets -- relies heavily on local gangs for enforcement of his schemes. And gangs are a way of life there, extending even into the membership rolls of local police and volunteer fire departments. (An illustrative scene, lifted straight from the history books, shows the members of two fire companies duking it out on the streets for the right to fight a fire, even as a house burns to the ground behind them.)

The fictional tale of Amsterdam brings the very real events of New York's past into sharp focus. Historical figures, including Tweed, P.T. Barnum and Cutting (who was actually named Poole) provide a frame for more personal stories that unfold daily in the Five Points slum. There are sterling performances all around, none finer than a mesmerizing turn by Day-Lewis, whose pronounced speech and exaggerated mannerisms bring the brutal but cunning gangster to life. Cameron Diaz is credible as the scarred pickpocket Jenny Everdeane, and she digs much deeper into the role than many of her previous movies would suggest she could.

DiCaprio, ostensibly the star of the film, is a blander figure than those around him, serving more as lens than subject. Director Martin Scorsese never turns his camera away from the vilest aspects of the time, and in the midst of all the action he delivers a startlingly thoughtful film.

- Rambles
written by Tom Knapp
published 14 February 2004

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