'Gangs of New York': THR's 2002 Review

Gangs of New York - H - 2002
This is a relentless, pitch-black portrait of New York in 1863.

On Dec. 20, 2002, Martin Scorsese unveiled a new crime epic, Gangs of New York, in theaters. The film went on to be nominated for 10 honors at the 75th Academy Awards but left without a single win. The Hollywood Reporter's original review is below: 

Martin Scorsese's careerlong exploration of the role of violence in American society culminates in Gangs of New York. The view here is that brutality and corruption played midwives to the American nation, that the American dream of liberty from European despotism, monarchy and aristocratic privilege ran afoul of the New World vices of bigotry and anarchy almost immediately. This is a relentless, pitch-black portrait of New York in 1863 that, while thoroughly rooted in historical fact, is nonetheless painted from limited pigments.

Astonishing and audacious, the film certainly creates a kind of perverse beauty and excitement out of its horrors. Scorsese seems to want the viewer to get a voyeuristic rush from gut-spilling fights featuring knives, cleavers and bats. And just as certainly, Gangs poses a major challenge to Miramax's marketing department.

Here is a movie from arguably America's most brilliant filmmaker, yet one so dark and disturbing you might label it a "feel-bad" movie. It's a gangster film, one of cinema's more durable genres, yet mired in arcane history and forgotten political movements. Scorsese's reputation ensures a solid opening here and perhaps even better in Europe. But Miramax will have a hard time recouping the enormous cost of re-creating 19th-century New York at Rome's Cinecitta Studios.

Inspired by Herbert Asbury's 1928 classic study, the script by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan embroils the viewer in a now-forgotten district of Lower Manhattan known as Five Points. Here everyone prays to one God or another, but in reality, God does not venture into this satanic terrain.

Ruled by an underworld barbarian known as Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, in his first movie since 1997's The Boxer), the area's only business is crime: theft, racketeering, prostitution, gambling, drugs and murder. Bill has made a devil's alliance with Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), supplying muscle to the political boss who would rule the city. It is into this cauldron that immigrants, mostly Catholics despised by Nativists, surge on a daily basis.

Unlike Scorsese's previous gangster movies, such as GoodFellas or Casino, there is little complexity to this 1863 underworld. There is a bad guy in Bill the Butcher, who carves up people and pigs with equal enthusiasm. And there is a young hero in an American-born Irish orphan named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), determined to avenge Bill's murder of his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), an Irish immigrant leader, 16 years earlier.

Amsterdam somewhat implausibly worms his way into Bill's Nativist gang and then into his confidence, becoming a son to the chief. The lad gets involved romantically with a beauteous, headstrong pickpocket, Jenny (Cameron Diaz), who has links to Bill as well. Other characters fill out the rogue's gallery: Monk (Brendan Gleeson), a strong-arm enforcer settled into shopkeeping; Happy Jack (John C. Reilly), a former gang member-turned-corrupt copper; and Johnny (Henry Thomas), an Amsterdam loyalist with strong instincts for self-preservation.

Against the backdrop of the Civil War — of President Lincoln's unpopular conscription and coffins arriving daily in the city — come the political maneuverings of Boss Tweed and a betrayal that alerts Bill to Amsterdam's true intentions. This lead to a climax amid the worst riot in American history, the Draft Riots, where much of Manhattan was destroyed first by immigrant mobs, then by soldiers and Navy guns.

DiCaprio makes the protagonist's thirst for revenge and reclamation of family honor palpable. But he doesn't look the part of a street tough. Nor is the script helpful by insisting that despite 16 long years in a religious "house of refuge," he has lost none of his street smarts.

The film's great performance belongs to Day-Lewis, a sociopath given free rein to spill blood in copious amounts. Here anger — at politicians, foreign "invaders," high society — mingles with humor and a sense of detachment. He's illiterate yet understands how power works and how to hold it through terror.

Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, designer Dante Ferretti and costumer Sandy Powell conspire to bring to life paintings and engravings of Old New York — its interiors almost monochromatic, the streets filled with smoky colors and nights made sinister by gaslight and flickering fires that dot the landscape.

Yet this 168-minute movie, reportedly cut down from a 195-minute version, never gets you inside the story so you understand how the characters feel about their deeds. Whether or not a longer version would have given the film more texture and dimension, this one presents a blinkered vision of American history, relegated to a few streets and alleys of Lower Manhattan and a few thugs who left no mark except perhaps on the collective unconscious. — Kirk Honeycutt, originally published on Dec. 6, 2002. 

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