Vancouver Sun - Friday, December 20, 2002


Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz.
18A. 167 min.
Rating 3.5 out of 5


Strong cast, but Day-Lewis steals show

Supporting actors who would be A-list in any other movie take a back seat in 'Gangs of New York'

by Marke Andrews


Daniel Day-Lewis has been away from the screen for five years, and in Gangs of New York he makes up for lost time.

As 1860s New York crime boss Bill (The Butcher) Cutting, sporting a dandy's wardrobe and a walrus moustache, Day-Lewis rants and rages, preens and pressures, hurls knives and insults with great abandon.

When he's in a scene, he owns it. Poor Leonardo DiCaprio might as well be holding the boom mike, just to make himself useful while sharing the frame with Day-Lewis.

Gangs of New York, director Martin Scorsese's ode to his city's blood-stained history, opens with a terrific street battle between rival gangs in the city's rough Five Points district. In the fight, Bill the Butcher, leader of the anti-immigrant Nativists, slays Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), leader of the Dead Rabbits, composed mostly of Irish-Americans. The death is witnessed by Vallon's young son who, nearly two decades later, returns to Five Points as Amsterdam (DiCaprio), intent on avenging his father's death.

However, as Amsterdam gains Bill's confidence and works his way into the gang, his quest becomes compromised. He falls for Bill's lover, the pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz), and sees how Bill respects Amsterdam's dead father by hanging his portrait and toasting "the last honourable gang leader."

As the anniversary of Priest Vallon's death approaches, Amsterdam must steel himself for the task he came to do. He will decide during the Civil War draft riots, where poor New Yorkers protest a draft system that allows the wealthy to buy their way out of military service, pitting government against mob, citizen against citizen in an orgy of violence with racist overtones.

Gangs of New York, loosely based on historical fact (Day-Lewis' character is modelled on Nativist leader and butcher Bill Poole, who died eight years before the movie's setting), is a triumph of technical achievement. Shot in Italy, the film's streets, buildings and interiors are immaculately designed by Dante Ferretti, costume designer Sandy Powell takes as much care with the men's threads (plaid pants, black jackets and saloon-king hats) as the women's, and Michael Ballhaus' cinematography colours Scorsese's world in earth tones, so much so the characters appear to rise from the dirt of the streets.

The dialogue fills with period terms, as characters refer to "star-gazers" (prostitutes), turtle-doves (female thieves who pose as maids to rob the rich) and wearing a "wooden coat" (coffin).

The supporting cast would make the A-list anywhere else. John Reilly plays former Dead Rabbit and now corrupt policeman Happy Jack; Jim Broadbent plays crooked politician Boss Tweed and Brendan Gleeson has an ominous presence as ex-Dead Rabbit Monk McGinn. All three make you wish they had more time on camera. Scorsese has a cameo as a wealthy New Yorker whose home is fodder for rioters.

As Amsterdam, DiCaprio makes a good thug, but he is hung out to dry in his scenes with Day-Lewis. "You gotta pay for the pleasure of my company," Bill the Butcher tells Amsterdam, and DiCaprio pays the price of being second fiddle whenever he has the pleasure of Day-Lewis' company. The latter brings menace, dash and humour to his character, and it's impossible to look away whenever he's on camera.

Thanks to Shaolin !