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Wednesday, Dec. 25, 2002

Life, liberty and the pursuit of power

Gangs of New York

Rating: * * * *
Director: Martin Scorsese
Running time: 165 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

In an underground catacomb, a ragtag band of grim-looking men prepares for combat, sharpening blades and shouldering axes. After the warriors receive holy communion, they file through a labyrinthine sprawl of a building and then emerge into an empty snow-covered plaza, where pigs rustle through the gutters.

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(From top) Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz in Martin Scorsese's "Gang of New York"

The camera sweeps across the plaza, and on the far side, a door opens. A huge man appears; it's William Cutting, aka "Bill the Butcher," leading his troop of blue-sashed Protestant "Natives" to battle their Irish Catholic foes, the "Dead Rabbits," in a ritualistic turf war.

A melee of horrifying savagery -- a blur of slashing, chopping and bludgeoning -- ensues. Hellfire Maggie, an Irish combatant, even uses her sharply filed teeth to remove an enemy's ear. Body after body falls into the snow, stained a disgusting pink with blood, until the Butcher fells the Rabbits' leader, Priest Vallon, before the eyes of his young son.

What we have just witnessed seems almost medieval in its barbarism, from some dark age of lawless anarchy. But then the camera rises in a series of aerial shots, revealing first the square, then the neighborhood, then the entire city, and we realize this is a time and place we know: Manhattan, circa 1850. Welcome to Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," a film that portrays an America rarely glimpsed in the history books.

Believe it or not

Scene after scene will leave you reeling, thinking "This can't be true." Grown men throw hefty rocks at Irish immigrant women disembarking at the docks. Fire crews fight turf battles with each other as buildings burn to the ground. Actually, aside from the fictionalized story at the film's core -- involving Vallon's son, Amsterdam, returning 16 years later to seek revenge against Bill -- all too much of it is based on fact: violent sectarian gang warfare for control of the Five Points; the interconnected interests of gang and political leaders (such as William "Boss" Tweed); and the antidraft riots at the height of the Civil War by the city's Irish newcomers, who resented fighting to save "the darkies" (and the fact that the wealthy could buy their way out).

The history here is eye-opening in more ways than one: Scorsese and set designer Dante Ferretti's full-blown re-creation of it on the 15-hectare soundstage of Rome's Cinecitta studio redefines the term "spectacle." This is no fuzzy, pixelated backdrop, but a real city of cobblestone streets and ramshackle tenements. From candlelit bordellos and Chinese opera houses to the municipal offices of Tammany Hall, "Gangs of New York" has created a world so deeply textured that you can instantly enter into it.

Working from the urban legend-cum-history of the period by Herbert Asbury, the filmmakers give us a whirlwind introduction to the downtown den of iniquity known as Five Points: gangs such as the Plug Uglies, the Frog Hollows and the Broadway Twisters; street hustlers like "anglers," "bludgets" and "turtle doves"; and Dickensian characters like Hellcat Maggie and Happy Jack. And, lest we forget, the She-Hes, New York's first drag queens.

All of which goes to show that New Yorkers of 150 years ago were just as fond of nicknames and colorfully diverse as they are now. But -- and this is Scorsese's main thrust -- this is the period where the idea of America as a "melting pot" of many cultures was put to the test: Today's multi-ethnic tolerance, however uneasy, was born out of this exceptionally violent period of change.

Meaner streets

At first glance, "Gangs of New York" occupies an obvious place in Scorsese's ouevre; he's spent much of his career exploring New York City and its criminal subculture, in films like "Mean Streets," "Taxi Driver" and "Goodfellas." But if you look at this extremely violent film (which makes the once-notorious "Taxi Driver" pale in comparison) alongside other Scorsese works, namely "Kundun" and "The Last Temptation of Christ," you might draw the conclusion that the director is schizophrenic, as attracted to violence as he is repelled by it.

Scorsese himself has spoken of his own youth in NYC's Little Italy, where filmmaking provided an escape from what he saw as his only two choices: become a wiseguy or a priest. Nearly all his best films, from "Mean Streets" on, have dealt with this dilemma, how to exist and survive within a predatory world. If "Kundun" represents Scorsese's ultimate exploration of the religious, idealistic path, then "Gangs" represents the other option, of not turning the other cheek, and seeking liberation through violent resistance.

We know from the outset that the hero of "Gangs," Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), is no Dalai Lama. Upon leaving the reformatory he's been imprisoned in for 16 years, he's told by a priest: "The Lord has forgiven you; you also must forgive." Cut to the next scene as he throws his Bible away into the river, and returns to the Five Points with murder in mind.

Amsterdam's fearlessness ingratiates him to Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), the anti-Irish "warlord" of the lawless streets. Since Bill is unaware of Amsterdam's identity, the young man can cunningly position himself "under the dragon's wing" and wait for the right moment.

But an odd thing happens as Amsterdam stalks the Butcher: He starts to fall under the gang leader's spell. It goes deeper than a surrogate father/son complex, as Amsterdam learns that his father was not all that different from Bill. Amsterdam can't see it, but his pickpocket floozy lover Jenny (Cameron Diaz) can; if he follows the same path, he'll end up just like The Butcher.

Good and evil

If there's a problem with "Gangs," it's that it sometimes feels like Scorsese meets Mel Gibson -- "Braveheart" on the mean streets of Manhattan -- and these two approaches don't exactly mesh. Scorsese has never made a film in which violence is heroic -- no bad guy is ever truly evil (Joe Pesci in "Casino"), while no good guy is ever without flaws (De Niro in "Taxi Driver"). But in "Gangs," DiCaprio is given a straight-up hero's role. We never doubt his integrity and honor -- despite his thieving and violent tendencies -- and we long for his vengeance.

It almost feels as if Bill the Butcher is the film's true Scorsese protagonist, a man who's capable of great evil and small kindnesses, a fascinatingly complex fiend. Day-Lewis certainly dominates the screen with pure, raw menace, inscrutable behind his bushy mustache. The scene in which he uses a pig's carcass to demonstrate the attacks that can kill a man is cringe-inducing.

If Leo and Diaz fail to shine as brightly, that's nothing to be ashamed of. Leo makes the transition here from teen star to adult actor, and while very low-key and controlled, he can unleash ferocity in a flash. In his scenes with Diaz the two display a feral attraction, biting, slapping and grappling their way through their accumulated layers of street mistrust.

The film's key scene comes when Amsterdam is in bed with Jenny and wakes with a start; there's Bill the Butcher, sitting silently in a nearby rocking chair. Leo plays it perfectly: Caught with Bill's former lover, you can see Amsterdam carefully sizing up every word and motion. Day-Lewis gives an astoundingly intense monologue. Literally wrapped in the American flag, he explains his philosophy: " . . . somebody rises up against me, I cut off his head, stick it up on a pike. That's how you preserve the order of things: fear."

A vicious cycle?

Scorsese had been longing to make "Gangs" since the '70s, and it's easy to see how relevant it would have been then; the mob chaos of the draft riots would have seemed eerily connected to the draft-dodging, anti-Vietnam protest movement, not to mention the mass looting that marked the blackout of '77 in New York.

But the Butcher's "order through fear" line takes on a certain resonance in a week when the White House has publicly promised nuclear retaliation against anyone who strikes at the United States. The irony becomes even more palpable when Mayor Tweed (Jim Broadbent) gloats as the municipal election returns come in with a victory that involves more votes than there are voters. "The first rule of politics," says Tweed. "The ballots don't make the results, the counters make the results."

Some things don't change -- that's one way to digest the film. Democracy is as corrupt as it ever was, and U.S. society remains rooted in violence and ethnic strife. The film's final scene, however, set in a cemetery overlooking the harbor, suggests another conclusion. We may look at Bosnia, or Belfast, or Hebron, and think the cycle of violence is unbreakable. But look at New York City, says Scorsese, where in 1863 the streets literally ran with blood in an orgy of racial and political violence. Now it seems so far removed as to be fiction. Perhaps, offers Scorsese, it is possible to transcend these conflicts, to bury past hatreds with the dead.

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