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  • Post last modified:October 5, 2021

Gangs of New York: The Rise of a Modern City


gangsofnewyorkIt was The Guardian critic Peter Bradshaw who put it best: “Objecting to its faults is like complaining about misaligned spangles on the costume of a strongman who’s juggling a dozen buses”. That’s what director Martin Scorsese does in this film and his spectacle is immensely entertaining, not least because of the passion that permeates the project; this is a movie he had been waiting 25 years to make. Scorsese was brought up in an environment where you had to use your bare knuckles to get ahead; no wonder that he saw similarities in this story to the rise of the modern New York City.

Two gangs clash
The year is 1846 and we are in Lower Manhattan’s Five Point district. Two gangs, the Natives (led by William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis)) and the Irish Dead Rabbits (led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson)), clash in a street battle and Vallon is killed by Bill in front of his son, Amsterdam. The kid runs away and doesn’t return to the city until 16 years later. Back in Five Points, he reunites with an old friend and notices that few things have changed; the city is still dominated by gangs, violence and corruption, and the political leadership in the shape of Tammany Hall is no exception. Bill the Butcher has strengthened his status as a crime boss.

Amsterdam keeps his identity a secret and manages to win Bill’s trust, all the while planning his revenge. Meantime, Amsterdam gets to know Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a skilled pickpocket, but is dismayed to learn that she has a history with Bill.

A classic Scorsese drama
I can’t help but notice the similarities between this film and Scorsese’s The Departed (2006); both deal with organized crime in the city, feature a charismatic and lethal boss, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays a man on a dangerous undercover mission. This is in many ways a classic Scorsese drama showing the old master still at the top of his game. There is such tremendous energy in this effort; the movie may have been shot in the Cinecitta studios, but cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and art director Dante Ferretti make us believe that this is what New York City looked like in the mid-1800s; the carefully selected period songs add to this impression. The bloody showdowns between gangs are reinforced by Howard Shore’s raw, majestic score.

The film also benefits from Day-Lewis’s first appearance in a film in five years; unrecognizable as always, this time he’s created a character that’s truly larger than life. Bill the Butcher is a psychopath who hates every Irish immigrant who enters his city (even though his ancestors once did the same thing); sporting a thick New York accent, a meat cleaver and a big moustache, Day-Lewis could be accused of chewing the scenery, but who in the world would mind? DiCaprio is not bad at all as his newfound protĆ©gĆ©, a young man Bill comes to regard as a son, but Diaz is less thrilling as Jenny and their romance never becomes an engaging part of the story.

The characters may not be the best explored ingredient, but we’re compensated by the fascinating portrayal of how the city worked at the time and what harsh conditions faced every immigrant; America was indeed born out of these painful meetings between different cultures.

The film ends as brutally as one expects, actually with a real-life event, the Draft Riots of 1863. The final scenes show Manhattan from the Brooklyn side, as the island changes over the decades, right up to the moment when the Twin Towers have been built. Accompanied by U2:s powerful “The Hands That Built America”, the sequence (as well as the film) is an irresistible love letter.

Gangs of New York 2002-U.S. 168 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced byĀ Alberto Grimaldi, Harvey Weinstein, Martin Scorsese. Directed byĀ Martin Scorsese. Screenplay: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan. Cinematography: Michael Ballhaus. Editing: Thelma Schoonmaker. Music: Howard Shore. Song: ā€The Hands That Built Americaā€ (U2). Art Direction: Dante Ferretti. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Amsterdam Vallon), Daniel Day-Lewis (William ā€Bill the Butcherā€ Cutting), Cameron Diaz (Jenny Everdeane), Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly… Brendan Gleeson, Henry Thomas, David Hemmings, Eddie Marsan. Cameo: Martin Scorsese.

Trivia: The project was first begun 25 years ago; then, Robert De Niro and The Clash were allegedly meant to be cast. The movie was inspired by, but not based upon, Herbert Asburyā€™s novel with the same title. Elmer Bernstein’s original score was rejected.

BAFTA: Best Actor (Day-Lewis). Golden Globes: Best Director, Original Song.

Quote: “Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand it becomes a fist. And, if I wish, I can turn it against you.” (Day-Lewis)

Last word:Ā “I was there for the last week of shooting. The pressure on Marty was extraordinarily intense. He was shooting the final confrontation between Daniel and Leo, and they actually made him stop before he got all the shots. They said, ‘That’s it, that’s it!’ It’s like you’re running the vacuum cleaner and they pull the plug out. So Marty actually had to go back when the movie was already put together and get a few more shots in New York because he didn’t have enough coverage.” (Cocks on the budget problems, The Guardian)



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