- The Washington Times - Friday, December 20, 2002

The prologue of Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," an extended and often punitive evocation of tribal warfare in Lower Manhattan during the mid-19th century, is set in 1846. The subsequent episodes advance to 1862-63 and exploit the backdrop of the Civil War, geographically far removed, as an unwanted intrusion on parochial hostilities among slum dwellers and neighborhood thugs.
The preferred battleground is an intersection called Five Points in a neighborhood now mercifully vanished. Moviegoers familiar with Mr. Scorsese's career from the beginning will recognize the first scene as an allusion to one of his student movies, "The Big Shave," a parody of razor commercials in which a fair-faced shaver is observed slicing his visage to ribbons.
The backdated close shave stops short of a copycat mutilation, but plenty of carnage remains on the agenda. Portentously, the shaver entrusts his blade to his young son along with the admonition, "Always leave the blood on the blade."
The opening bloodbath of "Gangs" is staged later, after we follow the shaver and his entourage by anachronistic but nimble Steadicam from a cavernous chamber that puts one in mind of the underground regions in "The Fellowship of the Ring." Acquiring fellow warriors of a somewhat troglodytic persuasion as he climbs to the surface, the shaver eventually emerges for a full-scale rumble. He commands the Dead Rabbits, an Irish immigrant clan, against the Nativists, similar roughnecks with aggressive anti-immigrant prejudices.
The Nativist leader is a local butcher, William Cutting, familiarly known as Bill the Butcher, a formidable and perversely funny presence throughout the movie as embodied by Daniel Day-Lewis.
Indeed, if "Gangs of New York" enjoys lasting renown, Mr. Day-Lewis' performance will be the best single reason for weathering the movie's defects, a minefield of graphic brutalities and poorly contrived topical or amorous subplots.
Brutalities accumulate as soon as the Rabbits and Nativists clash, leaving Bill the victor. His victory seems to bring social stability to this outpost of cutthroats for 15 years. When the continuity jumps to the 1860s, we discover that several old adversaries who survived are now tolerated as neighborhood fixtures, including Brendan Gleeson as a barber and John C. Reilly as a crooked policeman. Evidently, Bill is willing to live and let live as long as foes acknowledge his supremacy and pay tribute on a regular basis.
The remainder of the plot pins misguided hopes on the vengeful obsession of an infiltrator played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Named Amsterdam Vallon, he happens to be the son of the Rabbit chieftain who fell to Bill's knife thrust in the prologue the lad entrusted with the razor just before watching a slaughter that concluded with his father's death. Returning from a juvenile prison, Vallon attaches himself to the Cutting gang, now part of the Tammany Hall system of political patronage engineered by William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent).
Mr. Day-Lewis is a menace who seems to have given considerable thought to the barbaric aspects of human nature. Loath to transcend them, he's smugly content to dominate them. In addition, Mr. Day-Lewis has perfected a vocal tone that suggests Bill the Butcher may have invented the enduring New York accent.
Though the leading player gives the spectacle a reliable source of appalling strength, the rest of the cast seems to be at a grave disadvantage. That's especially true of Mr. DiCaprio, who doesn't take to the period very well and looks less attractive and energized than Henry Thomas, cast as a treacherous young confederate.
Credibility takes a complete nose dive whenever Cameron Diaz flounces into camera range as the designated femme fatale, pickpocket Jennie Evedeane, who is destined to fall for Vallon after some preliminary token hostility. Her overwhelming aura of today's Hollywood has a laughable impact on the ostensible time frame.
The movie clearly is at a loss for coherence whenever Mr. Day-Lewis is absent, but not even he can finesse the disparities between big social picture and little social picture that undermine the plot once the infamous New York draft riots of 1863 are cued to erupt.
As a practical matter, you're pleased when the Navy starts bombarding Five Points to rubble, the better to hasten incentives for urban renewal. "Gangs of New York" was postponed for a year in deference to the civic and national mood after the September 11 terrorist attacks. In the movie, both fire brigades and police personnel are largely mercenary, a historical observation that would have played calamitously last December.
It still may this December, but the delay has given Mr. Scorsese an opportunity to evoke the tragedy dubiously as dust from the bombardment settles over surviving gang members as if they have just come through the collapse of the Twin Towers. There's also a scenic farewell salute to the towers, but "Gangs" remains a one-tower show, and his name is Daniel Day-Lewis.

TITLE: "Gangs of New York"
RATING: R (Persistent profanity and graphic violence, occasional sexual candor and vulgarity, with nudity and interludes of simulated intercourse; fleeting depictions of opium use and prostitution)
CREDITS: Directed by Martin Scorsese, based on the book by Herbert Asbury.
RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes

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