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DVD Pick: "Gangs of New York"

About.com Rating 4.5 Star Rating

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Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Cameron Diaz, "Gangs of New York" (2002) received 10 Academy Award nominations. I liked this movie when I saw it on the big screen, and I think I liked it even better when I watched it at home recently on DVD.

The DVD version is a two-disc set that comes with some nice extras. Note that among the bonus materials there's a feature-length audio commentary by Scorsese.

What I like best about "Gangs of New York" is its operatic, theatrical look at an important part of American history. As he has done in past movies, Scorsese again demonstrates how good he is at exploring social codes. This time around, he takes on the teeming slum area of Five Points in Lower Manhattan in the mid-19th century. During this period, Five Points was brimming over with Irish immigrants who came during the Great Migration.

The film has a 15-minute prologue dramatizing a historical event that occurred in 1846. The Five Points area is so mired in poverty that the establishment pretty much ignores it, so the residents end up in a tribal society organized around gangs. The Anglo-Dutch poor, who were born in the United States, hate the Irish poor, who are fleeing dreadful conditions in Ireland. The prologue shows a gory battle between an Irish gang, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), and an Anglo-Dutch gang, led by Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis). Bill the Butcher slays Priest in combat and becomes the reigning power in Five Points for years to come.

Most of the movie takes place in 1862-63, when Priest's now 20-something son Amsterdam (DiCaprio) is out to avenge the death of his father. During the course of his quest he encounters many colorful characters and gets into a romantic relationship with a pickpocket named Jenny Everdeane (Diaz).

Bill the Butcher still holds sway over Five Points during the early 1860s, but conditions are in a state of flux. The Butcher enters into an unholy alliance with an up-and-coming, incredibly corrupt politician called Boss Tweed (a historical figure played by Jim Broadbent), whose ambitions far exceed what Five Points can offer. Also, the Civil War is on, and the Union army begins to draft the poor and send them off to fight and die. The Irish immigrants become outraged by their treatment in general and the unfair conscription in particular, and they are at the core of the bloody Draft Riots of 1863.

I think the best thing about "Gangs of New York" is the way Scorsese captures important aspects of American life that the history books I've read don't do well with. The immigrants start to play an important role because they represent votes, and the political machinery exploits the opportunity.

The country is becoming modernized, and the level of violence by 1863 makes the earlier gang battles seem tame by comparison. I think there’s a big anthropology lesson here, and Scorsese's treatment of history is unlike that of most other historical dramas—he honors the past, but he refuses to sentimentalize it.

I think the most memorable character in "Gangs of New York" is Bill the Butcher as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. The way he looks, acts, dresses, and especially talks—a sort of a proto version of Noo Yawkese—are truly unforgettable. But somehow the characters played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz never really come alive for me, although I'm not sure whether this was due to casting, acting, or writing.

It seems to me that the movie doesn't have a strong narrative drive. I think a lot of viewers will find themselves not caring all that much about whether or not young Amsterdam gets his revenge, but it's important to recognize that this part of the story is important to the film’s theme. I take this movie in the same spirit I take Dickens and Shakespeare and grand opera, and I believe those viewers who can get into that mindset will find the movie to be extremely worthwhile.

When I watch a Scorsese film, I have to keep in mind what a high standard he has set for himself. In past years, he's given us great movies like "Mean Streets," "Raging Bull," and "Goodfellas." I don't think "Gangs of New York" is quite as good as any of those films, but it is a stunning achievement nonetheless.

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