Martin Scorsese is a director of astonishing power and “Gangs of New York” is a movie of astonishing imagination, ambition, and scope. The first fifteen minutes are as dazzling as any images ever put on screen. The rest of the movie veers from brilliant to flawed, but it is unfailingly arresting, provocative, and powerful.
Scorsese has shown us his fascination with New York City (“New York, New York,” “New York Stories,” “The Age of Innocence”) and with violence (“Goodfellas”). Both themes come together in this story of the origins of New York, in the Civil War era where it was not yet a city, but “a furnace where a city might be forged.”
In a brief prologue, the leader of a gang called the Dead Rabbits is killed by the leader of “the natives” (those who have been in the United States for generations) in a huge and brutal skirmish. His young son, Amsterdam Vallon, is taken to an orphanage/reformatory. He returns twenty years later, determined to finish his father’s fight.
By this time, the man who killed his father, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) runs just about everything in the sprawling area called “the Five Points.” Even the legendary Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), the real-life figure who presided over the most corrupt political machine in American history, has to ask Bill for his cooperation and support. Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) arrives in the Five Points. Bill the Butcher controls just about everything. Amsterdam recognizes some of his father’s former supporters, including Happy Jack (John C. Reilly) and McGloin (“Billy Elliot’s” Gary Lewis). The only one who recognizes him is Johnny (Henry Thomas of “E.T.,” in the year’s worst haircut).
Amsterdam becomes a part of Bill’s inner circle, and finds himself drawn to him in spite of himself. Bill is magnetic and when he begins to treat Amsterdam like a son, the boy who lost his father cannot help but respond. As he says, “It’s a funny feeling being under the wing of a dragon. It’s warmer than you think.” Amsterdam also begins to care for a pickpocket/thief, and sometimes prostitute named Jenny (Cameron Diaz).
The struggle between good and evil is represented throughout the movie at every level, from the internal struggles within Amsterdam to the massive battles between the immigrants and the natives. Scorsese also puts the combat in Five Points within the context of the riots in New York after the Union began conscripting soldiers. His reach is over-ambitious at times, but he has a sure hand with the narrative and fills each frame with splendid images. Who else would have P.T. Barnum’s elephant lumbering through the city as combatants hurl themselves at each other? After the terrible fighting is over, Scorsese shows us how the city was delivered, in both senses of the word.
Superfluous voice-overs and flashbacks are very annoying, Thomas’ character is poorly conceived, and Cameron Diaz, though game, is badly miscast. DiCaprio just manages to stay on top of his role, but Day-Lewis gives a career-topping performance of such ferocity that the character almost bursts out of the screen.
Parents should know that the movie is extremely violent, with savagely brutal battles and oceans of blood. Bill the Butcher uses his expertise to cause the most painful damage possible. Characters are badly wounded and killed, including a hanging. The movie also has very strong language, including the n-word and sexual references and situations, including nudity, prostitution, a character in bed with three naked women, and a reference to abortion. Characters engage in every possible kind of corruption and illegality.
Families who see the movie should talk about how our history creates us. What does the movie tell you about present-day New York? Why does Amsterdam’s father tell him to leave the blood on the blade and never to look away? How does Scorsese show us parallels between the different gangs and between the gangs and other groups, like the Tammany hall politicians and the draft protesters?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy “Goodfellas.” They also might want to find out more about some of the real-life historical characters in the movie, like P.T. Barnum and “Boss” Tweed.