This long-awaited epic – Scorsese's 30-year quest to bring the story to the screen is well-known – arrives a year behind schedule (thanks to Miramax's post-9/11 squeamishness), but is none the worse for it.
A bloody, baroque sprawl of a film, Gangs of New York examines a heretofore little-explored chapter in New York history: the early 1860s, where tensions between American-born Manhattanites and the masses of Irish immigrants streaming into the city came to a boil when the controversial Civil War draft – targeting the poor, primarily the Irish – was instated, igniting what are still the worst riots the country has ever seen (at least 1200 men, women and children were killed).
Scorsese holds up this critical period of history as evidence that the America we live in now was, essentially, born during those turbulent times, not in 1776. Immigration, racism, political corruption, gang warfare, a disgusting gap between rich and poor, the absence of real freedom in the land of the free – all of today's hot-button issues seethe equally in Scorsese's 1862 New York (specifically the dirt-poor Five Points neighborhood, a shantytown in which the Irish were packed in like sardines).
The history lesson at first takes a back seat to a fairly standard storyline: good guy (Leonardo DiCaprio, credible) vs. bad guy (Daniel Day-Lewis, incredible) and the good woman with a bad past coming between them (Cameron Diaz, just fine). At least the story avoids the standard love triangle scenario: When DiCaprio, seeking revenge against Day-Lewis for the death of his father (Liam Neeson), not only infiltrates Day-Lewis's gang but gets involved with his girl, Day-Lewis could hardly care less. For his "Bill the Butcher" is far more interested in subjecting others to his cruelty than in wooing women.
Though there are a couple of very sexy scenes between two actors I don't find sexy at all (DiCaprio, Diaz), the romance eventually fades into the background as history takes center stage again. Which is a good thing, because it's here where Scorsese's direction really packs a wallop. Gallons of blood, passionate camerawork, and the director's typical oddball mix of music (no, dear reader, no rock tunes) keep all three hours of Gangs of New York right in your face.
This visceral energy, along with its disturbing message about the birth of Modern America and Day-Lewis's vicious, captivating performance, make the film worth recommending to all but those who detest the sight of blood. (It's Martin Scorsese, remember!) Of course it's exquisitely shot and designed, though I found the central Five Points square, where most of the action takes place, to be so claustrophobic that it felt like a movie set, not a New York neighborhood. That's pretty much my only qualm.