Martin Scorsese's Academy Award-winning film took nearly 30 years in planning and brought two major actors back onto the big screen after several years absence (Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis). 1846 New York and tensions have reached climactic and fatal proportions between the Irish immigrants and the British and Dutch inhabitants of the Five Points neighbourhood. William Cutting (Day-Lewis), aka Bill the Butcher, leads the inhabitants of Five Points and creates the 'Native Americans' gang, whilst the immigrants are led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and form 'The Dead Rabbits'. After a violent clash between the two gangs which leaves Vallon dead, his son Amsterdam goes missing only to turn up in 1862 under a new name and seeking vengeance for the death of his father. Amsterdam (DiCaprio) manages to integrate himself into Bill the Butcher's corrupt inner circle, which is now running the entire underworld around Five Points, and even becomes his right-hand man. However, his identity is soon revealed and a bloody showdown ensues.
Almost obliged to be huge, Gangs of New York
marks the return to work of three much-admired creatives missing-in-action for the past few years: director Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. Vast, impressive and challenging, it's unlike anything Scorsese has done in look and manner even as it is exactly the material he has obsessively turned over since his first films. A terrific 1846 prologue depicts a battle for supremacy over a district known as the Five Points between the "native-born American" mob led by William "Butcher" Cutting (Day-Lewis) and an Irish immigrant crew headed by "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson). The bloody outcome is the death of Priest and the rise to godfather-like prominence of the literally eagle-eyed Butcher (an eagle-marked marble replaces an eye he fished out in homage to his enemy!). Sixteen years later, Priest's son Amsterdam (DiCaprio) shows up intent on revenge, but finds himself distracted as he is drawn into the Butcher's inner circle much as another Scorsese Irishman hooked up with the mob in Goodfellas
The film covers an array of New York historical topics--from the corrupt government of William "Boss" Tweed to the riots that rocked the community when President Lincoln tried to impose military conscription--while the actual plot wobbles slightly as Amsterdam gets involved with a winsome pickpocket (Cameron Diaz) and wavers in his vengeful resolve. DeCaprio and Diaz aren't quite strong enough characters or players to hold things together--as in a few other recent Scorsese films, heroes are let off easily though they seem guilty of as many appalling crimes as the villains--but they have to compete with an award-worthy study in moustachioed menace and corruption from Day-Lewis and an array of the best supporting actors from either side of the Atlantic (Jim Broadbent, John C Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, David Hemmings). --Kim Newman
On the DVD: Gangs of New York comes with a decent set of extras on this two-disc set. Most notable is Martin Scorsese's commentary, the first of its kind on DVD. Taking a concise approach with some moderate pauses, Scorsese avoids a scene-specific analysis, but his rich knowledge both of the historical period and of cinema history is phenomenal, as is the account of his 30-year struggle to get the film made. Documentaries include costume and set design; a tour of the set with Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti (with optional 360-degree view); and a well-researched and insightful historical Discovery Channel documentary. "The History of the Five Points" is accompanied by some study notes and a vocab guide, all adding to the rich historical background that this extra material provides. Less insightful and more glossy are the obligatory trailer and "Making of" documentary, complete with husky voiceover. A choice of Dolby or DTS mixes are on offer sound-wise and, as you'd expect from such a beautifully filmed epic, the transfer is superb. --Laura Bushell
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