Gangs of New York

Directed By: Martin Scorsese

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, John C. Reilly, and Stephen Graham

"When you kill a king, you don't stab him in the dark.  You kill him where the entire court can watch him die."
-Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio)

Legendary director Martin Scorsese's career can be categorized in two phases — De Niro and DiCaprio.  Throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s, Robert De Niro was Scorsese's muse.  They made movie magic on countless occasions with classics like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Cape FearCasino marked their last major collaboration.  Since then, Scorsese's muse has been Leonardo DiCaprio.  While not quite like the De Niro years, they've done great work together as well.  Just look to films such as The Departed, Shutter Island, and potentially the upcoming Wolf of Wall Street.  For Scorsese and DiCaprio, it all began in 2002 with Gangs of New York, an epic historical drama about old school Irish mobsters in the 19th century.

It's February 6, 1846.  Today, "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson) and his Irish Catholic Dead Rabbits are preparing to engage Bill “The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his gang of Natives in hand-to-hand combat at Paradise Square in Lower Manhattan.  Before their territorial battle for the soul of the Five Points, Vallon teaches his son Amsterdam how to shave.  When he accidentally cuts himself, he tells Amsterdam to always let the blood stay on the blade.  Little does Vallon know that this is the final father-son moment he will ever have with Amsterdam.  On the battlefield that day, Bill the Butcher cuts Priest Vallon down, and Amsterdam loses his father.  With Bill the Butcher now outlawing the Dead Rabbits and taking full control of the Five Points, all little Amsterdam has of his father is his blade.  The boy is sent off to be raised at the Hellgate orphanage.

Sixteen years later in 1862, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) is all grown up.  He returns to the Five Points to exact revenge on Bill the Butcher, who has an iron grip on the region and is in cahoots with corrupt politician William M. Tweed (Jim Broadbent).  Amsterdam makes a name for himself and makes his way into Cutting's inner circle, which includes former Dead Rabbits McGloin (Gary Lewis) and Happy Jack Mulraney (John C. Reilly).  Amsterdam learns that Cutting celebrates the anniversary of killing Priest Vallon annually.  Incensed about this, he plans to murder the Butcher at the upcoming festivities.  As he puts his revenge plans in motion, he meets Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a strangely alluring pickpocket.  Meanwhile, tensions begin to brew as new conscription laws are enacted.  Because of this, the New York Draft Riots of 1863 are imminent.

Even the great Martin Scorsese doesn't knock it out of the park every time he's up at bat, and Gangs of New York marks one of those occasions.  By no stretch of the imagination is it a bad movie, but Marty doesn't take this historical gangster epic to the level we know he can.  This is primarily because Scorsese tries to do entirely too much.  He tries to tell an intimate tale of revenge while giving a history lesson about conscription laws in the nineteenth century.  Given this, we're constantly oscillating between Amsterdam's engaging revenge storyline and the less pertinent historical minutiae leading up to the New York Draft Riots.  As a New York native, Scorsese enthusiastically delves deep into the city's history, but connecting this fictional film to the real-life riots isn't essential.  Instead of providing additional historical context to the film, it actually distracts from several major plot developments.  Scorsese should have just focused on the tension brewing between the natives and immigrants as that naturally plays into the plot.

Gangs of New York is a bloody, brutal flick that thoroughly explores the culture of the Five Points in the old days (particularly all the fighting), but Scorsese does make a couple of other missteps.  First, the music is problematic.  At times, we get more traditional music that resonates with the era.  At others, we get cheesy music reminiscent of the 90s that doesn't fit the setting at all.  Just listen closely during the opening battle at Paradise Square for example.  Second, Scorsese frequently uses flashbacks to remind the audience of individuals Amsterdam encountered on that fateful day that his father died as they return to the screen later in the film.  Given that the unmitigated savagery of the opening is so impactful, there's no need to do this.  We all remember it.  Scorsese is unnecessarily spoon-feeding the audience by doing so.

In his first collaboration with Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio, Scorsese pairs the young actor with Daniel Day-Lewis, one of the finest actors to ever step in front of a camera.  To say that this may be a mismatched pairing at this point in time would be an understatement.  For his part as Amsterdam, DiCaprio delivers a decent performance.  His character gradually hardens as he endures plenty of hard knocks throughout the film.  With this role, DiCaprio, who had previously been more of a pretty boy type, begins to become a more serious actor.  With the great Daniel Day-Lewis firing on all cylinders, however, that's just not quite enough at this point in time.  DiCaprio is just not ready to be paired with a seasoned professional like Day-Lewis.  For his part as the colorful Bill the Butcher, Day-Lewis authoritatively gives us one sick bastard that rivals any gangster to ever grace the big screen (with the exception of Vito and Michael Corleone).  Bringing unmatched intensity to the film, he's a vicious and bloodthirsty crime boss.  Every time you think that Day-Lewis is at his most devilish, he digs a little deeper and gets a little darker.  His towering performance elevates the film.

The supporting cast members deliver strong performances as well.  For her part as thief Jenny Everdeane, Cameron Diaz gives a tough performance.  She offers a slippery, resilient character who knows her way around the Five Points.  Jim Broadbent is perfect as the deliciously corrupt politician Boss Tweed.  Broadbent's snake in the grass character fittingly complements Day-Lewis's Bill the Butcher.  John C. Reilly and Brendan Gleeson give us imposing characters as Happy Jack Mulraney and Walter "Monk" McGinn as well.

Gangs of New York is a solid mob film, but it's not Martin Scorsese at his best.  It's one brutal affair in which plenty of blades get bloodied.  Scorsese deftly forges a city of tribes and shows us what happens when war chiefs play on the spectacle of fear.  Though he makes several missteps, Scorsese on an off day is better than most directors on their best day.  It also helps that he has some extremely talented actors who put on strong performances.  Gangs of New York gets a 0.03% rating.  Have some wine coolers with this one.