Jan. 26, 2003 – "Gangs of New York," a dream production director Martin Scorsese nurtured for 25 years, has finally burst onto the screen with all the blood, violence and drama one could expect from the title, and from Scorsese.
Although the film gets mostly rave reviews, some critics fault Scorsese for bowing more to drama and violence than giving the nod to history. Set in the fabled Five Points area of mid-19th century Lower Manhattan, it's an adaptation of Herbert Asbury's collection of entertaining tales of the neighborhood's mostly Irish lowlife.
Daniel Day-Lewis stars as Bill "The Butcher" Poole, with Leonardo DiCaprio in his wake as the child who witnesses Poole murdering his father.
The movie begins in 1846 as Poole kills Vallon, the boy's father, in a snowy, bloody fight with rival gangs going at each other with knives, hatchets, razors, spikes and clubs. Poole sends the child to prison, from where he emerges about 18 years later as a beefy young man calling himself Amsterdam.
Determined to avenge his father's death, Amsterdam insinuates himself into Poole's gang.
So, will he act out his vengeance — or become seduced by the charismatic Poole, who takes such a shine to him that he overlooks the young man's sleeping with his old girlfriend Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket and prostitute.
But that's far too simple a story. The almost three-hour epic tries to gather in all the ambience and character of the period but, according to David Denby in the New Yorker, it misrepresents the horrific Draft Riots of 1863 in which one had to cough up $300 to avoid the draft, thereby recruiting the lowest rung of the ladder for fighters.
There was a revolt with the gangs, but they weren't heros. Denby says the actual rioters burned down a Negro orphanage and strung up black men on lampposts and set them on fire. He says the film makers went "down the wrong path, then pulled back, only to end in confusion, halfway excusing an awful event."
Denby, however, is totally enthralled with Day-Lewis's performance. The actor had taken a few years off to become a cobbler in Italy for reasons best known to himself. "The world may have lost a cobbler ….but no one could wish him to take up hammer and awl again," Denby writes.
He finds the movie "a disorganized epic" but says Day-Lewis "does what he can to hold it together." Poole is the head of a nativist Yankee (Protestant) group of thugs trying to keep out the Irish Catholics who are pouring into New York far too fast for Poole's taste.
While Denby finds DiCaprio's acting a "solemn, uncommunicative performance," he says Day-Lewis "was born to act, and I say, if the shoe fits, wear it."
Nev Pierce, in the BBC Film Review, is more charitable to DiCaprio, saying both he and Diaz "quietly impress." But, he says, their story is secondary to Scorsese's thematic concerns as a simple tale of revenge escalates into a portrait of class, race and religious war, an incendiary assault on the foundations of the so-called land of the free.
The movie "both astounds and enthrals, providing a riveting exploration of America's dark side," Pierce says, calling it a "work of staggering ambition, grandeur and terrible beauty."
Scorsese also gets producing and writing credits.
Now playing at Sunny Isle Theaters "Gangs of New York" is rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality/nudity and language. It runs 2 hrs. 44 mins.
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