New York, 1846. A mob of Irish immigrants - - the Dead Rabbits - - prepares to battle rival gang the Natives for control of Five Points, a particularly rancid pip in the festering Big Apple. Blades are sharpened, cleavers hefted and, this being a Martin Scorsese picture, communion taken. Bloody battle then commences, turning a snowy square into a pink Slush Puppy and leaving the immigrants' leader, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), felled by opposite number Bill The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis).
Zip forward to 1862 and nothing much has changed. In fact, it's worse than ever: Five Points is still ruled by Bill, disparate bands of immigrants glower from the shadows, the municipal police fight the metropolitan police for the right to impose law, and 37 amateur fire brigades trade blows while buildings burn beside them. Into this furnace walks Priest's son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), emerging from 16 years in reform school with the image of his dying father still unspooling across the backs of his eyes. What he wants is revenge. But, if he's to kill Bill, he first has to get close to him...
Everyone must now know the troubled history of Scorsese's pet project - - the escalating budget, the squabbles with Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein, the leap-frogging release date - - so let's just accelerate to the movie itself. Well, it's neither the massacre nor the masterpiece that everybody was predicting but, rather inevitably, something in between.
Critics hoping for Marty's Folly can point to the patent self-importance, unnecessary flashbacks, overcooked religious symbolism, runaway voiceover (again) and a cross-cutting climax that's more Phantom Menace than Godfather. But what Gangs lacks in subtlety - - and, at times, it's damn condescending - - it makes up for in power.
There are images here that'll burn into the viewer's mind as surely as Vallon's death scorches the young Amsterdam, while Scorsese's sizzling technique (whip-pans, staccato jump-cuts, reverse zooms) spits from every frame. Marty and scrawler Jay Cocks also make a pretty good fist of creating an epic drama, casting their net beyond the Natives and the Dead Rabbits to ensnare New York's political corruption and, heading even further afield, the Civil War. This is another of Marty's `urban Westerns', this time witnessing the painful birth of a nation.
Yet Gangs' main selling point is Day-Lewis, back from self-imposed exile with a bang and a wink. Yes, Leo's fine as the hero we're asked to side with (it's only natural that Scorsese, whose father was an immigrant, would take his side), but it's Bill The Butcher who steals the show. Kitted out in Cat-In-The-Hat headwear and a glinting glass eye, he's part pantomime villain, part ruthless killer - - a bogeyman who revels in his theatricality, yet stops short of cartoon. Oscars for Gangs Of New York? It's a good bet the Academy will start with Day-Lewis...
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Well worth the wait, despite veering between genius and arse. Marty's signature flamboyance brings life to this period drama, and Daniel Day-Lewis' arch-eyebrowed baddie is a real showstopper.