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Vice City

Arriving a year late and saddled with abundant backstory, Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York is finally slouching into Bethlehem, and—trimmed from some unknown length to a mere 165 minutes—a rough beast it is. Scorsese's tale of mid-19th-century New York City is an anachronizing anachronism—a personal epic, proudly out of season.

The opening sequence raises the street brawl to near-cosmic heights. Following the bizarrely ecclesiastical Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and his young son, the immigrant Irish "Dead Rabbits" gang spills from its catacombs into the snowy quiet of Lower Manhattan's Five Points district for a giant face-off with a horde of anti-immigrant nativists led by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). Their weapons are sabers, razors, meat cleavers, shillelaghs, and teeth filed to a vampire's point; Scorsese's are dollies and cranes. The battle varies between a child's point of view and something more . . . elevated. In one overhead, the carnage suggests a bloody Brueghel canvas with two dozen individuated cruelties going on at once. As if on cue, the mayhem ends when Bill dispatches Priest to a better world and Scorsese cuts to an ascending aerial view of New York City A.D. 1846.

Shot largely in Rome's capacious Cinecittá studio, Gangs of New York is a hothouse historical fantasy inspired by the already fantastic demimonde chronicles published in 1928 by newsman Herbert Asbury. It's a movie that Scorsese has wanted to make for 30 years, and one can see why. The teeming tenement drama, the awesome neighborhood capos, the arcane codes of street honor, the tribal antipathies, the Catholic pageantry, even the background opposition to an unpopular war suggest the filmmaker's lived history in some alternative universe. Not surprisingly, that universe echoes with the wide-screen, Technicolor genres of Scorsese's boyhood: spectacles of antiquity, town-building westerns, brawling pirate swashbucklers.

Mean Streets: Dicaprio rallies the dead rabbits in Gangs of New York.
photo: Courtesy Miramax Films
Mean Streets: Dicaprio rallies the dead rabbits in Gangs of New York.

Details

Gangs of New York
Directed by Martin Scorsese
Written by Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan
Miramax
Opens December 20

25th Hour
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by David Benioff, from his novel
Touchstone
Opens December 19

The Two Towers
Directed by Peter Jackson
Written by Fran Walsh & Philippa Boyens & Stephen Sinclair & Jackson, from the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien
New Line
Opens December 18

Gangs of New York cost well over $100 million, and the money is up there for the gawking. Illuminated by the orange flames of hell, the vast New York City set looks great. The least engaging aspect of the movie is its script—which passed through the hands of three separate writers and perhaps even producer Harvey Weinstein. Jumping ahead 16 years to the period of the Civil War, Gangs picks up on Priest's son, sent to an orphanage, grown up to be Leonardo DiCaprio and idiotically known as Amsterdam. En route to the old neighborhood, Amsterdam tosses his graduation Bible into the East River—he's returned to the city of his birth to wreak vengeance on the dread Bill.

Was there ever a more lowdown roistering town? Five Points is the land of nonstop thud and crash, the kingdom of arson and looting, the domain of fisticuffs—not to mention black clog dancers and strolling Irish string bands. Gangs of New York reads the present back into history and reimagines the past to suit itself. As the boats on the East River disgorge a steady stream of coffins, the city's denizens revel in the ethnic insistence that seems every New Yorker's birthright. Brothels feature live Chinese opera; Uncle Tom's Cabin is performed at a local settlement house, mainly so the actor suspended from the ceiling as Abraham Lincoln can be pelted with vegetables. When not parading for or against the Civil War and attending torch-lit political rallies or public hangings, the locals gather to stone Irish immigrants as they arrive (and are instantly registered to vote).

New York is ruled by the Tammany Hall fixer "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent), who is himself run by Bill the Butcher, the real Satanic Majesty of this infernal realm. Twirling his fearsome mustache and crowned with a skyscraping stovepipe hat, Day-Lewis is part goodfella, part Sweeney Todd, and total Know Nothing—a belligerent nativist who hates the union. With apposite Oedipal blindness, he adopts young Amsterdam of mysterious provenance, all the while insisting on his respect for Priest Vallon: "The only man I ever killed worth remembering." Yeah yeah yeah. (Bill's endless blather is all the more grating in that Day-Lewis's New Yawk accent seems to have been derived from a close study of Columbo reruns.)

While killing time for his showdown with the Butcher, Amsterdam engages in a long dance of mutual attraction with Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a lissome creature whose occupations alternate between smooth pickpocket and freelance prostitute before devolving to devoted nursemaid. Like DiCaprio, Diaz is perfectly adequate to her underwritten—yet inflated—part. (The scene in which they show each other their scars is meant to suggest some depth.) The more time spent with these young lovers, the less interesting they become—even though the Butcher can be relied upon to sharpen his knives with an eye to carving up their firm young flesh.

The movie ultimately reconcentrates its energy as the final battle between Amsterdam and Bill coincides with an upsurge in Irish political activism and the catastrophic draft riots of 1863. New York is torched; the homes of the wealthy are sacked. Not that our hero is directly involved: "The earth was shaking now—but I was about my father's vengeance," he tells us in voice-over. The draft riots (among other things, a four-day pogrom directed against the city's African Americans) are to Gangs what the burning of Rome is to Quo Vadis, but given the build-up, they seem rudely truncated. Some embellishments remain: Scorsese throws in the later burning of Barnum's Museum, thus allowing an elephant to amble across the set, and ups the explosion ante by inventing a scene where frigates shell the Five Points. He fills the streets with a sloshing river of blood, but the final confrontation—as Amsterdam and the Butcher collide in the smoky confusion of their shattered neighborhood—arrives much too soon. The riot was only getting started.

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