Gangs of New York (2002), Cert 18.

Director - Martin Scorsese.

Writer - Jay Cocks.

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


Premise - New York, 1863, the city is run by various gangs, none more powerful than the Nativists, whose leader is the aptly named Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day Lewis). 15 years previous in the famous battle of the Five Points, Bill had defeated the immigrant ‘Dead Rabbits’ and killed their leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) to win the power of the area. Now Vallon’s son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points to claim his revenge.

If Gangs of New York is not Martin Scorsese’ finest film then that is only an indication of how good his other work really is. Easily his best film since ‘Goodfella’s’, Gangs of New York is an epic film with a rich world that (thanks to a wonderful cast) is occupied by believable characters and tells an intriguing tale of how the America we know today was created.

Everyone is (or should be) aware of Martin Scorsese’ work, the man is one of the finest living directors working today. Films like Raging Bull, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver and Goodfella’s are amongst the finest films ever made. In Gangs of New York, Scorsese brings his decades of movie making experience to give us an old time tale of revenge set against the backdrop of the formative years of the USA.

From the opening scene of Priest Vallon walking through the catacombs as his gang members join his party, we are in solid Scorsese country. The man is a genius behind the camera and it’s scenes like this that remind you why you love watching movies. We go outside and the battle for the Five Points commences. What follows is a frenetic, incredibly stylish battle scene filled with animalistic ferocity. With little in the way of actual bloodshed, we instead see the snow on the ground becoming a disturbing pink colour as more and more bodies line the streets. Marty kicks the film off with a bang and doesn’t let go of audience until the credits roll.

The film is littered with scenes of this nature, the very essence of the gangs is territory and to protect it you have to fight. The gangs fight each other, the Fire Brigades fight each other and they all fight the police. Yes, Gangs of New York is a violent film, but it never feels gratuitous, rather we accept it because it is part if life in this world that Scorsese has so vividly created.

With the advent of CGI, you may never again see production design of this scale and grandeur on screen again. In-fact George Lucas visited the set in Rome and told Scorsese that the kind of sets made for this film could have been created in a computer. Thank the maker then, that Scorsese didn’t take Lucas’ advice. The lavish sets that have been created add tenfold to the realism of the movie and feel better than anything CGI could have coughed up. The production design in this film is absolutely gorgeous from the sets, to the props, to the costume to the make-up, they all add up to make an entirely convincing world.

A world that is all the more convincing thanks to the sterling work of the cast. Returning from a self imposed five year exile from the world of movies, Daniel Day Lewis is simply wonderful as William ‘Bill the Butcher’ Cutting. In a role intended for Robert De Niro, Lewis gives, for me the finest performance he has ever given. Lewis took method acting to the extreme during filming, keeping in character on set at all times, this approach has paid off as his Bill the Butcher is far and away this years premier male performance.

Bill is a brutal man, with startling racial (by today’s standards) views. But he is also a man of honour, with a strict code of conduct both in day to day life and on the battle field. One of Lewis’s finest scenes is not a battle scene, but one where he sits on a chair and tells the story of his life. It’s an incredibly touching and heart felt monologue that lets the audience in and shows a completely different side to his character. It’s thanks to Lewis’s performance that we can both despise and feel admiration for Bill.

Opposite Lewis is Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam. DiCaprio is an actor that over the last few years has become a little misunderstood. Back in the mid 90’s when he was starring in films like ‘What’s Eating Gilbert Grape’, ‘Marvin’s Room’ and the stunning ‘The Basketball Diaries’ I pegged DiCaprio as one to watch. Behind his youthful good looks I saw an actor of high quality, of course then he starred in some film about a sinking boat and he became more movie star than actor. He starred in a long line of poor films (The Three Musketeers & The Beach to name two) that were no more than a payday and a way to keep his profile high.

It’s nice to see then that in Gangs of New York DiCaprio goes back to the kind of work that I know he’s capable off. Amsterdam is a nice gritty character than weasels his way into Bill’s gang and is constantly plotting his death. DiCaprio plays the role understated, but you always get the feeling that he could snap at any time and on several occasions he does. It’s a good performance from DiCaprio that is slightly overshadowed by Daniel Day Lewis’s masterwork, but that is no fault of his own.

The main female lead and romantic interest is played by Cameron Diaz whom performs well. Diaz truly is a versatile actress whom can easily flit from no-brainer, popcorn fodder like Charlie’s Angels to epic, worthy material such as this film. Her character is a bit of a cardboard cut out (the young orphan learned to fend for herself and grew into a strong adult), but Diaz fills the role well and also brings a little glamour to the film.

The rest of the cast is a who’s who of some of my favourite character actors. Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson and the wonderful John C. Reilly do some great work in support roles. Broadbent as an unscrupulous politician, Gleeson as hired club and Reilly as en ex Dead rabbit, now corrupt policeman. If you also consider fine work from Henry Thomas and a dazzling small role from Liam Neeson, then Gangs of New York boasts one of the finest casts from any film in 2002.

Another factor in the films success is the excellent score by Howard Shore. Quite where he found time from scoring The Lord of the Rings trilogy to do this is beyond me. Not only has he done it, but he has created one of this years finest scores, second only to his own work in ‘The Two Towers’. From the infectious, drumming of the march to the first battle to the twee, folk style music that populates the rest of the film, Shore’s score makes the film come alive.

Boasting impeccable direction, production design and performance Gangs of New York is easily one of 2002’s best films. Fans of Scorsese will not be disappointed and fans of broad sweeping historical epics should also be satisfied. Gangs of New York is definitely one not to be missed.



See Gangs of New York if you enjoyed - Mean Streets, Goodfella's.

Poster Quote - Give it a butchers