You can't deny Martin Scorsese is a director of great ambition. In "Gangs of New York," opening nationwide today, he wants to show how the New York of today grew out of the violent, corrupt, racist society of yesterday. He has always proclaimed his passion for the city where he was born and raised, but this long – 2 hour 45 minute – film reveals more hate than love.
The subject, the life and ongoing warfare of gangs in New York, had engaged Scorsese's attention since 1970 when he first discovered a 1928 book by Herbert Ashbury detailing the mores of small, vicious New York gangs bearing names like the Shirt Tails, the Plug Uglies and the Daybreak Boys. Eventually, like nearly 30 years later, he was able to get his project off the ground, creating a huge 1860s Manhattan on the back lot of Cinecitta in Rome.
Make no mistake – thanks to the prodigious talent of production designer Dante Ferretti who used to work with Fellini, the film looks quite astonishing. But alas would that the story could match in any way the visual achievement.
A little boy watches his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) as leader of the Dead Rabbits (the uncatchy name coming from a corruption of the Gaelic dod raibeid meaning a violent, angry hulk) girding up for a hand-to-hand combat with the gang of American Nativists headed by William Cutting aka Bill the Butcher. These two gangs of largely illiterate immigrants and longer established Americans of little more education prepare to do battle with all the solemnity and ritual befitting King Arthur, Richard the Lion-Hearted and Saladin or "Braveheart." The Dead Rabbits take communion before heading out into the snow-covered field for the long, vicious struggle.
The child sees Bill the Butcher kill his father, runs off to hide the murder weapon deep in what appear to be the catacombs of New York, vowing vengeance. Sent off to grow up in a reform school, the boy re-emerges 16 years later in New York as Leonardo DiCaprio with long greasy hair, a wispy Van Dyke, and a thirst for blood in his heart. I regret to report he looks like a Renaissance angel who's gone to pudge. In short, it's doubtful if many teenage females will be swooning over him in "Gangs of New York."
But now, Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher – what a presence, what a performance. He is positively Shakespearean. Critics from the Washington screening exited positively moaning, "Oh, Daniel Day-Lewis!" It's the performance certainly of the year, if not of the decade. He dominates the screen every second he is in a scene. The sequence in which, wrapped in an American flag (admittedly a touch of dubious taste), Day-Lewis recounts how when beaten in an earlier fight with Priest Vallon he couldn't meet Vallon's eyes to admit his shame at losing, so he dug out the offending eye himself and sent it to Vallon out of respect is chilling and compelling. The artificial eye bears a tiny American eagle.
Of course, the DiCaprio character is taken under the wing of Bill the Butcher, who in a fatherly way feeling him to be the son he has never had, instructs him in the gentle art of killing by using a corpse of a pig – "closest thing to a man " says Bill – for demonstration. The payoff of the instruction is long in coming, like waiting for Hamlet to nail Claudius.
Of course, to fill up nearly three hours of film time you have the requisite love interest, Cameron Diaz as a lady pickpocket who's been a love of Bill before becoming the sweetheart of young Vallon (he gives his first name as "Amsterdam," but I never heard anyone address him by that moniker in the course of the film). And you get the lad attempting and failing to kill off Bill who cuts him up, and brands his face, a brand that has faded completely a couple of scenes further on.
Scorsese introduces social consciousness by showing us the corrupt and celebrated Boss Tweed in cahoots with Bill the Butcher, and Union Army recruiters – because now we're into the Civil War – trying to enlist young Irishmen straight off the boat into uniforms with promise of food, pay and clothes. And here, too, you get the notorious Civil War Draft Riots – a very nasty event indeed in the annals of American history.
Scorsese has one young African-American lynched, but passes over one of the worst excesses in which a school with black children in it was burned to the ground. He also shows rioters attacking homes of the wealthy on Fifth Avenue like Bolsheviks carrying on in the Russian Revolution.
The film sure sends you back to your American history books. Somehow I feel Scorsese and his writers are putting a definitely modern spin on it all. In the period, apparently, firemen were a fairly corrupt lot, often looting dwellings faster than putting out fires – a detail in the wake of 9-11 that kept the film from being released last Christmas.
Questions of historical accuracy aside – unfortunately what do kids know or care about history today? – "Gangs of New York" merits seeing alone for the glorious, outsize, extraordinary performance of Daniel Day-Lewis – malevolent, witty, commanding. He's more than worth the price of admission.
As for all the teen-age lasses out there hankering after young Mr. DiCaprio, hold on ladies, come Christmas you can see your Leonardo slim and cute as can be, questing again after a father, in Steven Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can." Two daddies in fact, Tom Hanks and Christopher Walken.