Trimmed by 20 minutes from its original running time to a still daunting 2 hours and 38 minutes, Scorsese’s epic drama takes us back to the era previously visited by the director in the “Age of Innocence.” This time the action takes place downtown, far from the suffocating salons of Manhattan’s upper classes. “Gangs” centers on the area known as the Five Points, a squalid slum where Mulberry and Worth Streets intersected with Orange, Cross and Little Water, approximately where the Federal Courthouse now stands below Canal Street.
In the years following the Famine, Irish immigrants were pouring into the tenements of the Five Points at a rate of 15,000 per week, battling with the existing Dutch and Anglo communities to scrape a living. Catholics and for the most part Gaelic speakers, the Irish were perceived by New York natives as untrustworthy because of their perceived higher allegiance to pope than nation, and as an economic threat because of their willingness to work for even less money than the freed slaves arriving from the South. The social frictions came to a head in 1863 when Lincoln introduced conscription to counter the heavy casualties suffered by the Union army in the Civil War. The conscription was conditional — citizens with $300 to spare could buy themselves an exemption. Incensed that only the poor were forced to fight, the Irish went on a four-day rampage later known as the Draft Riots. The Irish mobs took on the police and the army, and set about sacking the homes of the wealthy, brutally murdering anyone who tried to stop them.
Adapting the screenplay from Herbert Asbury’s lurid 1927 book of the same name, Scorsese uses the larger historic drama of the Draft Riots as the setting for a fictitious tale of revenge. The Native Americans, a gang of Anglo-Protestants born in the city, fight vicious turf wars with the Irish immigrant mobs, the most notorious among them the Dead Rabbits, the Know Nothings and the Plug Uglies. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), son of Dead Rabbits’ leader Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), witnesses as a child the murder of his father at the hands of Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in a pitched battle between the two gangs. Returning 16 years later to the Five Points from the orphanage to which he was dispatched, Amsterdam plots to kill the Butcher and avenge his father’s death.
“Gangs” marks a welcome return to the big screen for Daniel Day-Lewis, conspicuously absent from the public eye since “The Boxer” flopped five years ago. Day-Lewis is in top form as Bill the Butcher, by turns terrifying, as he taps his glass eye with the edge of his knife blade, sinister, and even comic as he hogs all the funniest lines in the film. Decked out like a villain of the silent screen, and looking all set to tie distressed damsels to the railroad tracks with an evil cackle and a twirl of his moustache, he upstages DiCaprio in every scene they share. The only actors with the presence to hold their own against Day-Lewis, Liam Neeson as Vallon Sr. and Brendan Gleeson as the club-wielding Monk McGinn, are given too little screen time to balance the film before meeting their ends at the Butcher’s hand.
The issue of Irish accents in the mouths of American actors is always troubling for Irish viewers, but DiCaprio and romantic interest Cameron Diaz acquit themselves honorably with the hybrid dialect one would expect from immigrants who arrived as children in New York and grew up here, retaining some of the brogue but partly adopting the local accent.
Day-Lewis’s performance may well be worth an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, but Scorsese fans will expect this epic drama of 19th century New York will win for the filmmaker the Best Picture statuette that has long eluded him. Scorsese has been nominated four times by the Academy, most recently for his adaptation of Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence” eight years ago. “Gangs” has all the trademarks of Scorsese the master visual stylist, from fluid camerawork to superb editing, and will undoubtedly get nominated in these categories. If anything, the film is overdesigned — the New York slum built on the soundstages of Rome’s Cinecitta looks like the set for a Broadway show rather than a real city, with every smudge and scuffmark art-directed to the hilt. But with regard to Best Picture, the Academy will likely balk this time at the extreme violence that pervades “Gangs” from start to finish. The film is R-rated for its relentless bloodshed, and squeamish viewers will cringe at the all-too-realistic hacking of bone and gristle that features in every fight scene. “Gangs of New York” opens nationwide Dec. 20.