[Screen It]

(2002) (Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis) (R)

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Drama: A young Irish-American sets out to avenge his father's death at the hands of a brutal and powerful Nativist, as corruption and anti-draft sentiments grow stronger in 1860s era New York.
It's New York City, 1863 and Amsterdam Vallon (LEONARDO DICAPRIO) is a young Irish-American orphan who's just been released from a "house of refuge." Sixteen years earlier and as a young boy, Amsterdam watched a massive street battle in the Five Points district between the Dead Rabbits forces led by his father, Priest Vallon (LIAM NEESON), and the Nativists under the control of William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (DANIEL DAY-LEWIS).

Amsterdam wants to avenge his father's murder and lucks out when he runs into Johnny Sirocco (HENRY THOMAS), a street thief who works for Bill. Johnny doesn't give up Amsterdam's identity and the young man ends up working for Bill as well, eventually becoming his close confidant. While the Dead Rabbits have been outlawed by Cutting -- who unofficially runs the area along with corrupt politician William "Boss" Tweed (JIM BROADBENT) - he stills honors Amsterdam's father as the last reputable man he fought.

Men who once followed the Priest, such as Happy Jack (JOHN C. REILLY) and Charles McGloin (GARY LEWIS), now work for Bill and share his disdain for the hordes of immigrants who arrive daily at the docks. Most are signed up directly into the Union Army to be sent to the South, and soon everyday men will be drafted into the army if they can't come up with the $300 deferment fee.

When not moving in closer with the enemy, Amsterdam has taken a liking to Jenny Everdeane (CAMERON DIAZ), an accomplished pickpocket who also has a past with Cutting. As time passes and with the aid of former Dead Rabbit, Monk McGinn (BRENDAN GLEESON), Amsterdam finally makes his move on avenging his father's death. From that point on, the city careens toward violence on various fronts.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
After the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 with the destruction of the World Trade Center and thousands of deaths, some wondered whether New York City would be able to overcome such horrific scarring. The city and its people have always proven to be resilient, however, and have overcome various other setbacks.

In 1790, the U.S. Capitol was moved out of the city, while the Wall Street crash of 1929 lead to the Great Depression there and elsewhere. Massive fires in 1835 and 1845 destroyed enormous parts of the city, while the anti-draft riots of 1863 left more than 1,000 people dead or injured and are still the worst in U.S. history.

That letter setting serves as the backdrop for director Martin Scorsese's long-delayed but highly anticipated "Gangs of New York." A sprawling epic that clocks in at around 160 or so minutes (but flies through them), the film covers a number of stories and themes. Most notable is that the city and the country survived and even flourished following the events - historical and fictional - that seemed destined to destroy it.

Loosely based on Herbert Asbury's novel of the same name, the film has been in the making for nearly three decades ever since Scorsese ("Bringing Out the Dead" "Goodfellas") publicly announced he was going to make it back in the 1970s. Yet, the nature of the work and its related budgetary expenses prevented that from occurring until today (with its reported budget being well north of $100 million).

You can certainly see the money on the screen as Scorsese and his production team have delivered one of the most visually brilliant films of this or any year. Work from the likes of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus ("The Legend of Baggar Vance," "Primary Colors"), production designer Dante Ferretti ("Titus," "Meet Joe Black") and costume designer Sandy Powell ("Far From Heaven," "The End of the Affair") is more than exemplary. They and others, including composer Howard Shore ("The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," "Panic Room"), could very well join the director in earning award nominations for their efforts.

Yet, a film's look will only carry it so far, and it's with the screenplay by Jay Cocks ("Strange Days," "The Age of Innocence"), Steven Zaillian ("Hannibal," "A Civil Action") and Kenneth Lonergan ("You Can Count on Me," "Analyze This") that some critics and viewers could find some level of fault.

Combining the elements of the events leading up to the draft riots, the explosion of immigrants into the city, the rampant political corruption and a mostly fictionalized revenge plot, there's a lot to be covered. The result is that some of them aren't afforded enough time or material to make them as powerful as they might have otherwise been.

Even so, Scorsese does a rather good job of using the earlier elements to support that latter one which makes up most of the main story. It's a Shakespearean style tale of revenge where a young man returns many years later to avenge the death of his father.

Everyone loves a revenge story - at least in the movies - due to its themes of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong and vigilantism, all of which are at play here, much like in many of Scorsese's other works that deal with violence.

The only potential nagging problem is in how that plays out. It starts in a superb fashion, however, as we follow one warring force - led by Liam Neeson ("K-19: The Widowmaker," "Michael Collins") - as it makes its way through its subterranean lair and then out into the still, cold day and adjacent "battlefield." It's a terrifically staged and filmed sequence and introduction to the story, although the squeamish might find the violence a bit much.

That's where the boy witnesses a man kill his father. We next see him as Leonardo DiCaprio ("The Beach," "Titanic") who's been recently released from some sort of orphanage where he's spent the better part of his life. Through sheer chance, he meets a young man - played by Henry Thomas ("All the Pretty Horses," "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial") in a decent performance - who just so happens to work for the father killer.

It's not long before he becomes a trusted associate and one begins to wonder when the figurative and literal ax is going to fall. Some will find all of that a bit far-fetched in that the protagonist would wait so long to make his vengeful move, while others might doubt the ruthless but cunning boss - with obvious enemies - would allow such a newcomer to get so close to him. In hindsight, I can agree with those observations, but I didn't really have any such problems as all of that transpired.

That's because Scorsese does such a masterful job of telling the story - beyond a few quibbles here and there - that one is likely to be completely drawn into it and not let loose until the end. The only real problems I had with the film included the occasional voice-over narration from DiCaprio's character which isn't too obnoxious, but certainly isn't necessary.

Then there's some occasional sped-up and slowed down footage that's incongruous with the rest (and seems like a studio mandate to make it more appealing to the younger crowd) and some contemporary soundtrack music that simply doesn't fit in with the piece.

The jaw-dropping, outstanding performance by Daniel Day-Lewis ("The Boxer," "My Left Foot"), however, is likely to make everyone forget about all of that. A shoo-in to win the Oscar in whatever category he's eventually nominated (Best or Supporting Actor), Day-Lewis creates one of the cinema's most memorable villains ever.

He does so with such fervor that you'll forget it's him, a point I actually welcomed since the previews had me worried, what with the huge top hat and massive mustache. That the actor manages to make the horrific villain - who's based on a real-life character from around the same era - so compelling, magnetic and even slightly likable is only more of a testament to the tremendous acting job that's on display here.

Playing against him, DiCaprio delivers a solid performance, although at times he's a bit hard to buy as his character (unlike in "Catch Me If You Can" where he's perfectly cast). It's not a debilitating flaw, but he's certainly overwhelmed by the looming shadow of his counterpart.

Meanwhile, the likes of Cameron Diaz ("The Sweetest Thing," "Vanilla Sky"), Jim Broadbent ("Nicholas Nickleby," "Iris"), Brendan Gleeson ("The Tailor of Panama," "The General") and John C. Reilly ("The Hours," "Chicago") are all terrific in their respective roles and interaction with the main characters.

Filled with some sequences and photography that are simply amazing to behold as well as quieter moments that are just as effective, powerful and convincing, the film is obviously an accomplished product from the hands of a master filmmaker at work. While not without some flaws, "Gangs of New York" is, far and away, superior to most of what's routinely offered to viewers and thus rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed December 7, 2002 / Posted December 20, 2002

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