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In the early 1860s, New York’s Five Points was a violent, lawless and vice ridden district, home to waves of poverty stricken immigrants like the Irish escaping the famine. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) was a young boy when he saw his father slain in one of the many battles between the Irish and the gang of Native Americans led by the charismatic and deeply nationalistic William ‘Bill The Butcher’ Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis). After 16 years in an orphanage, Amsterdam returns to Five Points, intent on revenge, and works his way into Bill’s inner circle. But his mission becomes less personal when he sees the potential for the thousands of Irish to act in unison, and becomes a catalyst for them. Meanwhile, his attraction for the feisty pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) is on a collision course with her past links to Bill – and the destinies of all three collide with the Civil War Draft Riots in 1863. 

Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The opening scenes fling us straight into a period that by its production design is vaguely reminiscent of Medieval Europe; it serves to recast our concepts of New York, as Martin Scorsese and Team take us through the violent, faction and racist birth of the metropolis. New York? Looking like this? Once he’s time-jumped us, Scorsese develops the film like an epic, investing time in establishing character, period and mood. It’s a giant undertaking in its ambition to capture 20-odd crucial years, a short period in history but a very long time on screen. The history lesson is told through the three characters of the angry young Amsterdam, the equally angry older Bill The Butcher, and the feisty and smart Jenny. They are all excellent performances, but Daniel Day-Lewis steals the show as a gnarled, complex soul, a dedicated idealist driven to extremes by the sort of passion we see today amongst us all around the world: dangerous nationalists, racists, bigots and fundamentalists. His cause is swathed in pride, yet it’s a shameful and intolerant view of humanity. The stuff of suicide bombers and their backers. This haunting character is delivered to us in a performance that Robert DeNiro would have given us 25 years younger. Indeed, you can almost see DeNiro through Day-Lewis and I’m sure so can Scorsese. A great supporting cast includes John C Reilly and Jim Broadbent as a bent politician from Tammany Hall. Although the writers have constructed a love triangle for the trio, Scorsese is more interested in the underlying story of the many and varied gangs of New York of the period as a social force that shaped the early texture of the city as a society. And it is certainly fascinating and surprising for those who have never given the matter much thought. (Including me.) The film, thirty years in Scorsese’s psyche, looks and sounds as if it were made by the Best Available Craft Collective, and does for Rome’s Cinecitta Studios what Lord of The Rings has done for New Zealand. And while it is hugely impressive, an achievement of truly epic proportions, often graphic and no doubt pretty accurate, it never pumps your heart with the love story, nor puts a lump in your throat with its violent heroics. Perhaps it was never meant to; rather, it’s a story of such relevance to New York, to America and even to the rest of the world, that just had to be told on film with as much impact as a filmmaker can muster. And Martin Scorsese musters much.

Review by Louise Keller:
Tough and uncompromising, Gangs of New York is a powerhouse of an epic. Opening our eyes to a very different New York, with rampant crime oozing from the backstreets, Martin Scorsese has created an ambitious sweeping saga, which intricately details the texture and colour of the time. This is a time when immigrants flood into the streets and in the underbelly of the city, gang leaders manipulate and fight for control and power. An awe-inspiring performance from Daniel Day-Lewis as the theatrical, sadistic ‘butcher’ with the handlebar moustache and steely iron heart is reason enough to see this striking film, while the exquisite production design with its pain-staking detail and authenticity transports us effortlessly to nineteenth century New York. But be prepared for the graphic violence – there’s much that is distressing and harsh. None of it gratuitous, however: unfortunately, it’s all necessary for us to understand the times with its racketeering, gambling and murderous daily routine. The story begins with a battle on the snow, and it’s not long before the snow is bloodied with death splattered everywhere. It’s a harsh lesson for a little boy, whose dying father tells him ‘never look away’. With his teeth cut on violence, it’s no wonder that he is intent on revenge. Set on a huge canvass, at its heart lies the crucial development of the relationship between Bill the Butcher and Amsterdam. While Bill is motivated by fear, Amsterdam’s motivation is hatred. Whether or not the film actually needs every minute of its 168 minute running time is a personal assessment: there is no question that a story such as this needs plenty of time to establish the context and setting. For me, the spectacle and atmosphere offer more rewards than the anticipated payoff between the two key characters. There’s much anticipation and tension, but the resolution never achieves the kind of impact that I was hoping for. There again, this could be the point of the story. Cameron Diaz’s street-wise Jenny, who makes bumping into strangers her livelihood, is totally credible, and gives yet another sample of this talented actress’s versatility. Leonardo DiCaprio has great presence, but it’s Daniel Day Lewis who steals the scenes and delivers a chilling and memorable character, whose non-compromising motivation becomes a fiery force of its own. All the cast is hand picked, and when the film is over, what remains in my memory, is a dark and troubled portrait of how the seeds of this complex city of New York are sowed. Howard Shore’s score magnifies the drama, and there’s something eerie in the final frames when the past morphs into the present, and the skyline (pre September 11) with The World Centre Towers intact, is framed for final reflection over the old graves across the river.

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CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson

PRODUCER: Alberto Grimaldi, Harvey Weinstein

DIRECTOR: Martin Scorsese

SCRIPT: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan (Story by Cocks)


EDITOR: Thelma Schoonmaker

MUSIC: Howard Shore


RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes


AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: February 13, 2003

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