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'Gangs Of New York'

Mean streets come alive in 'Gangs'

Friday, December 20, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Film Critic

No streets were meaner than those of 1846 New York's Five Points area, a teeming cesspool of crime, poverty and corruption controlled by warring immigrant and "Nativist" gangs with names like Plug-Uglies, Dead Rabbits, 40 Thieves and Slaughterhouse.

New York'

RATING: R for extreme violence, language, sexuality and nudity

STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent

DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese

WEB SITE: www.gangsof


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In the incredibly violent opening confrontation of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," two such gangs -- one Native, the other Irish -- assemble and formally exchange insults before their wintry battle begins. As horrendous slaughter ensues, the snow goes from white to pink to red.

From the sidelines, a young Irish boy watches "Bill the Butcher" (Daniel Day-Lewis) kill his father, "Priest" Villon (Liam Neeson). Sixteen years later, emerging from a long reformatory stint, that boy returns to The Points as the man Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio -- looking neither beautiful nor glamorous), with vengeance on his mind and in his heart, like Sweeney Todd reclaiming the blade that slew his dad.

It's now the middle of the Civil War. Time and casualties have depleted the cannon-fodder supply, forcing President Lincoln to institute the first involuntary conscription. You can buy your way out for $300, but not if you're a penniless Irishman. Ships arrive daily in the harbor, unload coffins from the battlefields and depart the same day with freshly recruited immigrant soldiers just off their boats from Europe.

Anti-Catholic hatred is, if possible, even worse than before because the Irish are resisting the draft. Amsterdam will bide his time for revenge against the Butcher and his "Know-Nothing" thugs. An Irishman can only lick 'em by joining 'em.

In this rotten-to-the-core time and place re-created by Scorsese, the strange bedfellows of these rival alliances include fictional and historical figures alike. Among the latter are New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and Boss Tweed (wonderfully played by Jim Broadbent), whose Tammany Hall sponsors hangings in the morning and dances at night for the entertainment of its mobs.

Meanwhile, New York Nativist "Negrophobia" has soared out of fear that emancipation will empower and increase the free-Negro population. (As one real-life New Yorker put it at the time: Former slaves won't be satisfied with freedom, "they will demand the right to vote and, when that is granted, will [eventually] be satisfied with nothing less than social equality.")

If there was any doubt about it before, "Gangs" proves DiCaprio is a fine actor who's getting finer. Day-Lewis is a superb actor, getting greater: His Butcher Bill, in top hat and bizarre checked pants, is a seven-foot-tall madman who loves to read about his crimes in Police Gazette. Both men have cultivated brilliantly convincing accents for their parts.

Cameron Diaz as Jenny the pickpocket makes her love-interest role far more intriguing than it might have been, especially in the film's gorgeous candlelit dancing scene.

A 180-degree turnaround in Amsterdam's character (from blood-feudal murderous to Gandhi-esque nonviolent) is a bit of a stretch toward the end -- with more stretching into three-hour "epic" proportions than Jay Cocks' screenplay can smoothly manage. But it is powerfully written overall.

Scorsese is a master director, but one who too dearly loves his own ability to render graphic violence. Here, it has tremendous shock value, all right, but at the expense of advancing the historical myth that thousands were killed in ongoing, wholesale riots. In fact, the rioting lasted three days (July 13-15, 1863), and the total number of dead was 117.

But "Gangs of New York" has an eerie, hypnotic "McCabe and Mrs. Miller" quality that makes it riveting, down to the final great duel. Its release was wisely postponed for a year, in deference to 9/11 New York sensitivities: Its now grown-over graveyards make it the most ferocious of film visions.

Barry Paris can be reached at 412-263-3859.

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