Gangs of New York
Leo gets ready to rumble
By Jon Popick

Don’t mess with Leo; he’s tough.

Gangs of New York, the year's most eagerly anticipated film plays like a who's who of AWOL Hollywood heavyweights. Director Martin Scorsese hasn't been seen in theatres since Kundun in 1997 (pretend Bringing Out the Dead never happened). Ditto for stars Daniel Day-Lewis (1997's The Boxer) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic in 1997-pretend The Beach never happened as well), who always seem to be Academy Award contenders despite appearing about as frequently as Haley's Comet.

What's with DiCaprio and his knack for finding epic-scale projects that ultimately suffer from both extremely delayed releases and bad word-of-mouth thanks to clashes between director and studio? Titanic was practically a punchline before it even hit the screen...but who's laughing now? While Gangs may not achieve the same level of success, either financially or Oscar-wise, the two films lend themselves to comparison, from their painstaking attention to detail, to their dexterous ability to combine action and romance (the latter being the Achilles' heels for both, however).

Gangs, which started filming way back in the spring of 2000, opens in an area of 1846 Manhattan's Lower East side called Five Points. The first scene depicts a father shaving and teaching his young son about knives and St. Michael before the duo lead dozens of people through what appears to be the bowels of the Earth, until they emerge into the daylight and the center of town. They're a scary-looking bunch with scary-looking weapons, but no more frightening than their counterparts, who materialize from the other side of the town square and take up their defensive positions. A few words are exchanged, and then the two sides go at it Braveheart-style until the snow is good and pink.

The father is Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the leader of the Irish immigrant gang, Dead Rabbits, and during combat he suffers a fatal wound from the rival gang leader. The Natives, a group of longtime Americans led by William Cutting (Day-Lewis), win the battle and take control of Five Points. Vallon's son, who witnessed the gutting of his father, is shipped off to an orphanage, but returns 16 years later (as DiCaprio) with revenge on his mind, especially when he learns that the glass-eyed Cutting (aka Bill the Butcher) celebrates the anniversary of Priest Vallon's death with a big party. Now calling himself Amsterdam, his narration (one of the film's weaker points) explains the whole "Keep Your Friends Close But Keep Your Enemies Closer" notion as he eventually becomes Cutting's right-hand man.

Meanwhile, there has to be some romance so the teenage girls pony up their cash. And, of course, the woman in question (Cameron Diaz) has to be involved with both men in some way, so there can be even more conflict between the two men. As in Titanic-more so here, actually-the lovey-dovey stuff threatens to bring Gangs to a screeching halt, but Scorsese never gets quite as carried away as James Cameron did (though comparing the DiCaprio-Winslet chemistry to the DiCaprio-Diaz chemistry isn't at all fair).

Meanwhile, chemistry and conflict all take a backseat to the film's depiction of New York itself. Scorsese doesn't emulate Lucas and create his surroundings digitally-everything you see was built by hand, right down to the real cobblestone roads (it was filmed at Cinecitta Studios in Rome, though, but we'll let that slide). Gangs, inspired by Herbert Asbury's 1928 non-fiction book of the same name, has the history down cold as it neatly folds subplots involving the Irish potato famine, the Civil War, and the Draft Riots into its deceptively complex story. Screenplays penned by multiple writers are often a mess, but that's not the case with Gangs, which is credited to Jay Cocks, whose first screenplay (for Scorsese's The Age of Innocence) landed him an Oscar nomination; Kenneth Lonergan, whose first screenplay (You Can Count on Me) landed him an Oscar nomination; and Steven Zaillian, who won an Oscar for Schindler's List.

Together with a crack team of behind-the-scenes talent, Scorsese has managed to construct a bustling city built on all manner of illegal activity, which is spearheaded by Cutting and his Tammany Hall crony William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent, Iris). Even the police and firefighters are considered gangs here, in this land where the "natives" (mostly Anglo and Dutch) despise the incoming crop of Gaelic-speaking Irish, many of whom step off the boat, get drafted, and then get right back on another boat to head down South and fight for their brand-new country. Do yourself a favor and try to hunt down Ric Burns' amazing New York: A Documentary Film to brush up on your history-it'll make Gangs that much more enjoyable. Plus you might need it: This is the first major film to portray Civil War-era New York, so those of us younger than 160 probably don't remember much about it.

There's only one question when it comes to Gangs' acting: Which Oscar is Daniel Day-Lewis going to win-Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor? He's good enough to make everyone else in the film look like Madonna. Here's to hoping he makes another film again in the immediate future, and to hoping Scorsese's original cut (three-plus hours) will be on the DVD.