Thursday, January 16, 2003

Gangs of New York

A city bitterly divided against itself, where lines between class, race, and ethnicity are as clearly drawn as the streets on an 1862 map of the Five Points district of lower Manhattan. With detailed and meticulous strokes of his brush Martin Scorcese has painted such a scene to serve as a background for his epic masterwork, "Gangs of New York."
The movie opens in winter of 1846 with a street brawl between the Nativists led by Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and a horde immigrant warriors led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). The two groups collide in the snow blanketed landscape of Paradise Square and turn it pink with blood, ending only when Vallon is killed by the hands of the Butcher as his son Amsterdam watches.

Sixteen years have passed when we next catch up with Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) who, having left the Hell Gate Reformatory, returns to the Five Points neighborhood to avenge his father's murder. He soon finds the Butcher has aligned himself with the corrupt Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and his Tammany Hall politicians. In a plot twist that would have made Thomas Kydd proud, Amsterdam, with the aid of his childhood friend, Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), conceals his identity and infiltrates the inner circle of the Butcher to become a trusted lieutenant.

Filling out the triumvirate of major characters is Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket and con artist whom Bill has taken under his wing and is admired by Johnny. When Jenny chooses Amsterdam over Johnny she sets the movie's final act into motion. Johnny betrays Amsterdam by revealing his true identity to the Butcher who, in a confrontation with Amsterdam, brands him a traitor, and throws him into the streets, where he begins to reassemble the coalition of immigrant groups built by his father seventeen years earlier.

The movie's final confrontation between the Butcher's Nativists and Vallon's immigrants plays out against the backdrop of the 1863 draft riots which pitted the immigrants and working classes against the upper class who with $300 could buy their way out of the draft and the blacks that the North was fighting to free.

The film's screenplay, written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan is a masterpiece filled with dialogue which is nearly Shakespearean in its construction and made all the more richer by the acting talents of Daniel Day-Lewis, who as the Butcher, over powers Diaz (who in the movie's largest flaw, has nothing to do) and DiCaprio and nearly steals the show. The movie's art direction also deserves recognition, pulling the viewers into a dirty, dingy, dark and depressing world of the lower classes of 1860's New York. Scorcese has gracefully manipulated all of these elements into an impressive epic that explores a little known piece of our American heritage.

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