He's finally done it. For 30 years, Martin Scorsese has been trying to get Gangs of New York up on the screen. Now, here it is, a three-hour epic that digs into the city's past and finds, instead of the melting pot we always hear about, a witch's cauldron of class hatred and ethnic intolerance. Set during the Civil War, when the North and South were at each other's throats over the issue of slavery, Gangs of New York is Scorsese's answer to Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's controversial creation myth. Call this one Afterbirth of a Nation, if only because of all the blood that gets spilled when New York comes squalling into existence as something other than a wide-open frontier town. Great movies are built on great themes, and Scorsese, who's been wrestling with the Big Apple his entire career, has one by the horns.
Does he let go? Possibly, in the third hour, when we're suddenly no longer sure what the movie's getting at. But let's begin at the beginning, with the sound of a blade being sharpened. It's 1846, and the Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish Catholics led by Liam Neeson's Priest Vallon, are about to square off against a gang of native-born Protestants who don't fancy the world's tired and poor washing up on America's shores, especially in New York Harbor. The Nativists are led by Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, whom Daniel Day-Lewis turns into one of the most flamboyant hoodlums in the history of crime. As the opposing armies fall into formation (not far from where Scorsese grew up), their respective leaders unleash enough rhetorical firepower to defeat Henry V at Agincourt. Both seek one nation under God ' theirs.
The Butcher gets his meat allotment that day, but Vallon's son, who witnessed the killing, returns 16 years later in the form of Leonardo DiCaprio, who goes by the name of Amsterdam. Sworn to revenge, Amsterdam infiltrates Cutting's operation, even becomes a surrogate son to the childless leader, and the movie settles into a somewhat familiar good-dad, bad-dad plot involving filial loyalty. But that's only the foreground. In the background, Scorsese crams the screen with historical and fictional incident. Jim Broadbent shows up as Boss Tweed, the man who made a fortune out of playing both sides of the law against the middle. And Cameron Diaz provides the third leg of a romantic triangle by playing Jenny Everdeane, a sleek-fingered pickpocket who steals Amsterdam's heart out from under him.
"She's a prim-looking star-gazer," Amsterdam says about Jenny, an authentic-sounding locution that suggests somebody's done his homework. The movie is awash in seeming-authenticity, from the rundown shacks of the Five Points crossroads (Lower Manhattan at its lowest) to the handlebar mustache that Cutting could well use to slice and dice his opponents. The various gangs are like something out of Walter Hill's The Warriors, each attired in its native or nativist costume. We're so used to historical gangsters wearing snap-brim fedoras and bearing snub-nosed .38s that these hooligans are almost comical. And Day-Lewis, who seems to be giving a performance and sending it up at the same time, looks like he belongs in the circus, with his stovepipe hat and nipple-high plaid trousers.
Like Shakespeare's Richard III, Cutting's a fascinating character ' a psychotic brute with a touch of the poet. He speaks in doggerel, as when he calls an underling a "meat-headed shit sack," and Day-Lewis has come up with an accent all his own to go with this Yankee patois. DiCaprio's Irish accent is just enough to lift him out of contemporary Hollywood and drop him down in 1860s New York. And he's put on some weight, which keeps him from being blown off the screen by Day-Lewis' ferocity. Not since Titanic has DiCaprio connected with an audience the way he does here. He and Diaz give Gangs of New York an emotional anchor that it might not otherwise have. There are simply too many characters, too much going on. And at times the movie is all but overwhelmed by its own production design.
Shot on a backlot at Rome's Cinecitta studio complex, Gangs of New York shows us a New York that's less a city than "a furnace where a city might be forged," as DiCaprio says in voice-over. And everything's so heated up that you have to wonder how anybody or anything ' least of all a stable society ' could make it out alive. But if Scorsese and his writers are to be believed, the Draft Riots of 1863, which send the movie out in a blaze of glory, represented the end of Bill "The Butcher" Cutting's whole way of life. Suddenly, federal troops were bringing law and order to the mean streets of Lower Manhattan. But are we supposed to stand up and cheer when they start firing on the good (and bad) citizens of New York? And is Amsterdam's Irish gang really any better than Cutting's Nativist gang? Who are the good guys? And why?
Scorsese may have set Gangs of New York beyond good and evil, in a Hobbesian state of nature where it's every gang for itself and may the sharpest blades win. The movie's based on a 1928 book by Herbert Asbury, which blended fact and fiction into something resembling folklore. And who knows where the truth lies at this point. "When the legend becomes fact," as someone says in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, "print the legend." In this Eastern-Western, Scorsese has printed the legend, and the ink is splattered all over the screen.