Los Angeles Times - December 2002


'Gangs' shows different side of America

by Julie Lowrance


As Americans, we sometimes view other countries' civil unrest as inconceivable and appalling. It's all too easy to forget that civil strife was not only an integral part of our history but also a catalyst in creating the America that we know today. In Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York," we are transported to an America whose growing pains were steeped in violence. Where sometimes the enemy, whether real or imagined, lived right next door.

Since the early 1970's, Scorsese has been fascinated with the historical relevance of Herbert Asbury's 1927 novel "The Gangs of New York." And although embellished, Scorsese has taken meticulous steps to reenact that part of America's past.

In the forefront, "Gangs" focuses on heritage pride and father-son relationships while depicting, in the background, the turbulent times during the Civil War -- cries of New York's secession, abolishment of slavery and riots against Lincoln's draft.

In the opening scene, we travel to New York City circa 1846 where innocence is shattered when the stark white snow-lined streets are stained a ruby-red during a graphically brutal fight sequence between two warring immigrant groups.

The Nativists, who contrary to their moniker are only one or two generations removed from their immigrant birthright, are led by the uncompromising Bill Cuddy a.k.a. "The Butcher" (Daniel Day-Lewis). Their adversaries are the Dead Rabbits, the most recent Irish immigrants, led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). When Vallon's son, Amsterdam, witnesses his father's death, he vows vengeance against his killer.

Sixteen years pass and Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) leaves the orphanage, returning to the seedy, poverty-ridden streets of lower Manhattan, where he quickly learns that in order to survive he must hide his identity and befriend his father's murderer.

Even though DiCaprio as Amsterdam and Cameron Diaz as his love interest, Jenny, give convincing performances, it is Daniel Day-Lewis' phenomenal performance as Bill that is not only central to the film, but symbolic of the times as well. Day-Lewis embodies the vicious Bill slowly revealing multifarious layers of passion, bigotry, admiration, struggle, despair, fear and hope.

Like Day-Lewis, Bill distinguishes himself from the other pickpockets, swindlers and murderers. In his fresh, stylish clothes, he's uncharacteristically intelligent and politically savvy. However nothing changes his true nature, and when Amsterdam threatens his beliefs and way of life, he fights like a cornered, scrappy mongrel.

What intrigues me the most about Scorsese's films, including "Gangs," is that even if they begin slowly with narrative, I always get hooked. Unfortunately "Gangs" is a dark, borderline depressing drama and not the lighter fare desired by a wide audience, especially during the holiday season.

It is, however, one of the best films that I've seen this year. Have you ever wondered why so many critically acclaimed films are released during the holiday season? It's not a coincidence. In order to be considered for Oscar contention, a film must be released, even in limited release, by Dec. 31.

"Gangs of New York" is rated R for intense strong violence, sexuality, nudity and language.

Thanks to Shaolin !