The lucky few who saw Scorsese’s 20-minute clip of “Gangs” at Cannes gave it a standing ovation, and word-of-mouth on the final cut is so positive that we can expect a flurry of Oscar nominations for Scorsese and his stellar cast when the film is finally released.
Few filmmakers are better qualified to bring Herbert Asbury’s 1928 book of the same name to the big screen — New York native Scorsese has been dissecting the Big Apple’s wormy core since “Mean Streets” almost 30 years ago. He’s arguably even better qualified to document New York’s underbelly than Asbury himself, the son of a Methodist minister from Missouri who penned “Gangs of New York” half a century after the events in his book took place.
To re-create the squalid atmosphere of the era in which Asbury’s book is set, Scorsese’s design team rebuilt the tenements and streets of pre-Civil War New York on the soundstages of Rome’s fabled Cinecitta studios, the venue for so many Fellini masterpieces in the 1960s.
In both book and film, the action centers on the Five Points, the notorious downtown hub of street crime and random violence in 19th Century New York. The film spans the three decades leading up to the Draft Riots of 1863, and recounts the feuds of real Manhattan gangs of the time, the Native Americans and the Dead Rabbits. Prominent among the immigrant rivalries are the Italians and the Irish, and Scorsese’s cast reflects this ethnic mix. Top billing goes to Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a character named Amsterdam Vallon, who seeks revenge for the killing of his father (Liam Neeson) by William Poole, enforcer-in-chief of the Native American gang. Better known as “Bill The Butcher,” the Poole character is played by a mustachioed and stovepipe-hatted Daniel Day Lewis in his first screen appearance since “The Boxer” got KOd at the box office five years ago. Dubliner Brendan Gleeson plays the colorful gangster Monk Eastman, an anachronism in the film as this real-life character wasn’t born until 1873. “Ballykissangel” graduate Liam Carney and Gary McCormack round out the Irish contingent in minor criminal roles, and Jim Broadbent, no stranger to mutton-chop sideburns after “Topy-Turvy”, plays notorious Irish-American autocrat Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall. Cameron Diaz takes the only female lead as DiCaprio’s Irish love interest, essaying a brogue you could cut with a knife and spread on your soda bread.
A July release would have pitted Scorsese’s film against Dreamworks’ “Road To Perdition”, launched the same month. The Christmas Day release date for “Gangs of New York” plunges the film into the end-of-year Oscar nomination steeplechase, and in direct competition with Spielberg. Scorsese’s DiCaprio-led epic opens the same day as Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can”, a biopic of the FBI’s youngest ever ‘Most Wanted list candidate, Frank Abagnale. The film is scripted from Abagnale’s memoirs and stars, you’ve guessed it, Leonardo DiCaprio.