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Gangs of New York

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz
Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Martin Scorcese

IN SHORT: Epic in every way. [Rated R for Intense strong violence, Sexuality/nudity and Language. 168 minutes]

Four corners is the place in our country where the edges of four states come together in perfect symmetry. Back in the mid-1800s, when the bustle of New York City didn't extend much past 14th Street (Brooklyn was an independent city and Harlem was the suburbs) the intersection of Mulberry and Worth and Cross and Orange and Little Water streets formed what was called Five Points, a nasty little place dominated by local gangs, political bosses and the conflicting jurisdictions of various police and fire departments. Welcome to the wild, wild East.

Based on or inspired by the 1928 book by Herbert Asbury, The Gangs of New York may not be historically accurate enough for fanatical history buffs but, as we used to say in one of our past careers, it's close enough for rock 'n' roll. We're not history buffs, but we were aware of the Civil War Draft Riots -- essentially the northernmost battle fought during the Civil War -- and of the gangs that ran rampant through New York City in the mid to late 1800s. Despite the razzle dazzle names which fly at you in the first scene of Martin Scorsese's film -- we'll get to the stomach turning violence later -- many gangs took their names from their neighborhood or street, and those particular names are still with us today, even if memory of the gangs, or the streets that inspired the names, are not.

It is a fine thing to think of New York City as always having been the urban metropolis that it has been for most of the last century, but it just isn't so. New York in 1862 and 1863 was a politically fractured place where independent fire and police companies battled each other for turf; Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and the political mega-power of Tammany Hall swapped soup for votes and ran the political structure of the city; gang bosses like Bill "the Butcher" Cutter (Daniel Day-Lewis) took their piece of every illegal operation around -- and had fingers into all the legal stuff as well. The New York we see in this film is as lawless and dangerous as any town in the frontier West. The self-proclaimed "natives," descended from original Dutch settlers, battle it out with hordes of Irish immigrants fleeing famine. The natives control the streets. The poor Irish live in tunnels beneath those streets.. The rich folk lived up on Fifth Avenue, south of the in-construction Central Park or way up north in the suburb of Harlem. Brooklyn was an independent city that wouldn't link to Manhattan Island until late in the century.

The one battle that stands in "the Butcher's" memory as his greatest was against the Dead Rabbits Gang, led Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). The Butcher believes that The Priest was the one foe who had standards and beliefs as high and solid as his own. The fifteen years since that epic battle have seen a lot of smaller fights for control of the territory, but nothing that brings any pride to this Boss. Even his terms for keeping his gang "pure native" have started to slide. Here and there, and occasional Irishman will join the gang. Some Irish have found corruptive jobs in the government -- Happy Jack (John C. Reilly) of the Rabbits is now a constable. Some, like enforcer turned barber Monk McGinn (Brendan Gleeson), take the highest offer. And dontcha just know that the lad at The Butcher's side, his growing right hand man and son that he never had, is a native Irishman called "Amsterdam" (Leonardo DiCaprio)? Surely times are changing!

One small thing The Butcher doesn't know: Amsterdam's last name is Vallone. You figure it out.

Amsterdam's eye has fallen upon Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a bludget who is also the apple of another man's eye (Henry Thomas as Johnny, a "native" who arranges Amsterdam's place in the gang). Scorsese's Gangs is thick with dialog as dead and buried as the principals, real or imagined -- a "bludget" is a female pickpocket -- and at times DiCaprio's voice narrates explanations for what has been said or descriptions of what is being seen on screen. It toes the line at "history lesson" but provides enough information that we didn't feel like a stranger in a strange land.

Be warned, though, that the language gets thick and the weaponry tends to lean towards sharp slicing and pointing things rather than pistols. We've all become so blase about gun violence that, once you take the boom out of the picture, the stomach may roll. That aside, Scorsese has once again delivered an epic and a masterpiece. DiCaprio is good. Diaz is better and Day-Lewis absolutely struts his stuff in a masterful performance that damned well better get him noticed at Oscar time -- he's already picked up the New York Online Critics award as we write this and you'll definitely see his name on Cranky's best of lists come Christmas Day.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Gangs of New York, he would have paid . . .


One of the best of the year. Get more from Cranky Critic® StarTalk with Cameron Diaz and/or Daniel Day-Lewis


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