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Are you reminded each day of the violence in our inner cities? Are you close enough to your politicians to overhear their careless confessions of corrupt practice? One and a half centuries of what is referred to as "civilization" have brought advances that allow many of us to avoid daily strife and allow our elected officials to avoid close scrutiny. If you are in the unfortunate situation of facing constant urban turmoil and poverty, then Gangs of New York won't seem so strange to you (if you have a working VCR and either the money to rent the film or the gumption to steal it).
But for many Americans, Martin Scorsese's vision of yesteryear in NYC will seem as bleak and foreign as any cyberpunk landscape interpolated from the darkness of today's reality. The year is 1863, and The Civil War is on. Tension is high in New York as "innocent" northerners are sent to fight. Perhaps Scorsese uses peoples' historian Howard Zinn as a reference, because he quickly debunks the notion that the northern states are fighting for the morality behind emancipation. Instead, many northerners remain staunch racists, and the true motives for the war are political and financial interests.
The split between the wealthy and the poor is wide; and folks are especially destitute in Five Points, the Irish ghetto. The film actually begins sixteen years before the Civil War, at a time when Five Points is undergoing a civil war of its own. Clans of new Irish immigrants take up arms against clans of first-generation Irish-Americans, who cruelly lord it over the newcomers. These "natives" are led by Bill Cutting the Butcher, played with fearsome flair by Daniel Ari Day Lewis.
The street fight concludes with the immigrant leader, a Catholic clergyman named Vallon, dead at the hands of the Butcher. Vallon's wee son escapes to spend the next sixteen years growing up to be Leonardo DiCaprio. When Amsterdam Vallon returns to the neighborhood, it is with the drive of vengeance. He perpetrates this by wriggling "under the wing of the dragon" as he puts it, becoming the Butcher's favored henchman.
But the road is shaky and the path untrue. Friends betray him, and his father's memory, and many of his well-laid plans gang aft a-gley. However, he does manage to swing a girlfriend, Jenny the thief, Cameron Diaz, with his good looks and grungy nobility.
As a second showdown between The Butcher's natives and Vallon's Irish influx begins to coalesce, the Northern U.S. government passes a mandatory draft--mandatory unless you are well-heeled enough to pay $300 to be excused. This puts New York's poor masses in an uproar that sparks the Civil War Draft Riots of 1863. The bloody and tragic fracas lasts five days, overshadowing the battle between Vallon and The Butcher.
The dust settles at last and Scorsese tries his best to stay with a happily wobbling denouement for a few minutes. Though the production values were much higher, the ending somehow reminded me of the classic 70's kung-fu movie ending, when, after the last big fight, the hero stands up, and a second later, the credits roll. To dwell on the triumph of the good guys would be too sentimental, and nobody has any energy left for more fighting.
In general, the film is very well made. The costumes deserve awards, and I sure wish I knew where to get of one of those dandy outfits. The settings are amazing, so foreign from our contemporary idea of city-dom that the Mrs. thought we were in for a science fiction film at first, something along the lines of Mad Max. As for acting, Lewis is superb in his role, fully embodying the dastard and delivering chillingly heartless diatribes. DiCaprio and Dias look nice.
With all this dressing, the story rides along easily, not needing to contain too much importance or relevance. Though the battles are bloody, the action intense, and the drama high, these characters don't engage a viewer apart from being historically interesting figments. DiCaprio will appeal to his fans because he often slips out of his shirt, to reveal a chest flecked with aesthetically pleasing scars, and out of his character, revealing the modern-day actor behind the two-dimensional vengeance seeker.
Call Gangs of New York an "external drama": all the real conflict happens in the context surrounding characters, not within them. And with that distinction made, we can see the film as a portrait of New York City in its troubled adolescence. Though the writers cast some thematic grappling hooks from 1863 to 2003 in an attempt to establish relevance, they don't tug the two time periods toward each other with any real enthusiasm. Single lines indicating how political clout is saleable, for example, are thrown out, and then left slack.
If you are keen on adventure and action--and goodly helpings of stage blood--then you will enjoy this movie more than average. It has romance and melodrama, like Gladiator. At any rate, it's pretty exciting and excitingly pretty.
©2003 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.