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Blood of the Lamb 

Gangs of New York (R)
Miramax

Martin Scorsese's epic historic fantasy of the "hands that built America" is a mesmerizing, bloody slog through the mean streets of mid-19th-century New York City. As a revenge drama, it comes equipped with the required characters and plot -- slain hero (Liam Neeson), avenging son (Leonardo DiCaprio) and brutal villain/face of evil (Daniel Day-Lewis), with a pretty damsel (Cameron Diaz) thrown in for good measure.

The story is relatively simple: The Five Points neighborhood of New York City in the 1840s is a seething settlement where thousands of Irish immigrants arrive daily. Their presence threatens the economic status quo of the "Natives," men who fancy themselves the exclusive rightful dictators of the community. Leading the Natives is Bill the Butcher Cutting, a brutal warlord played with swaggering intensity by Day-Lewis. When Priest Vallon (Neeson), leader of the Irish gang the Dead Rabbits, takes on the Butcher and his clan in a huge street fight, Vallon is murdered as his tiny son watches on, effectively sealing the rule of the Natives over Five Points.

That's the prologue.

Fast-forward 16 years to the Hellgate House of Reform, the orphanage where Vallon's son, now calling himself Amsterdam (DiCaprio), is released as an adult. He heads straight for the Five Points with the intention of avenging his father's death.

The midsection of the film sees Amsterdam worming his way into the inner circle of the Butcher's universe, conflicted but seduced nonetheless by the power he finds in the inner sanctum. The Butcher doesn't know Amsterdam's true identity, and the young man forges a connection with his father's killer. He soon comes to share the Butcher's favorite squeeze, comely pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Diaz).

The third act brings Amsterdam's political awakening after his true identity is revealed to the Butcher. He galvanizes the burgeoning Irish community and challenges the Natives to a rematch. But their battle and its outcome is destined to be overshadowed by the massive uprising of the working class of New York against the government, the Draft Riots protesting forced conscription of the poor to fight for the Union Army in the Civil War.

DiCaprio is adequate as the scrappy street fighter turned revolutionary, but his character is grossly overshadowed by the psychotic freak show that is Day-Lewis' performance as Bill the Butcher. Here's a character with absolutely no redeeming values -- he's ugly, greasy and vile -- who carries the rest of this grandiose film like so much window dressing.

That is just one of the central problems with Gangs of New York. Conceived some 25 years ago when Scorsese read a 1928 book about the battle between the Natives and the Dead Rabbits, Gangs has gone through a number of different scripts, including the original idea of making it in two parts -- the first part ending with the climactic battle of the two gangs; the second part following the ethnic gangs that built the Brooklyn Bridge.

But as Scorsese has obsessed over telling the story, he and a string of screenwriters have glommed on so many other elements -- most notably the subplot of the uprising against the draft -- that Gangs of New York has outgrown its parameters as a classic revenge tale, leaving its players to act against the grandeur of the sets and the confusion of mushrooming subplots.

The set, built entirely on a soundstage in Rome, is effectively the star of Gangs of New York with its filth and ramshackle streets, its catacombs, dance halls, dirt and street lamps. We are brought into an entirely new and separate universe where, as the film would have it, anything can and does happen.

As a spectacle, it works. As a coherent statement about the conflicting elements that built a neighborhood, a city and ultimately a nation, it fails.

In his long and impressive career as a filmmaker, Scorsese has rarely been able to avoid his favorite subject matter -- adolescent males running wild, having their way with the world around them. Glorification of violence is the director's favorite game, and Gangs provides one hell of a playground.

But Scorsese seems to want to say something serious here about the elements that lead to world-shattering conflicts, and he flounders by stylizing the characters, making them practically cartoonish in their larger-than-life scale. Given the amazing set he was working on and the massive cast of extras, why did he choose to shoot and edit the grand opening battle in an MTV-style, musically enhanced haze? Why did he allow the vastness of the Draft Riots -- shots of people marching down the streets through puddles of blood ankle-high -- to overshadow and flatten the impact of the central conflict of the film, the final confrontation between the film's central players?

In the midst of excess, his message is a disturbing mishmash. The only woman in the film is a whore and a pickpocket; the fire that really gets the protesters' blood boiling in the final scenes is the chance to lynch a "nigger"; the honor and dignity that his conflicting tribes seem to be fighting over is the chance to be in bed with the corrupt politicians who run the city.

Gangs of New York is beautiful, bloody, confusing and overwhelming. Then come the credits at the end, carefully choreographed to the U2, made-for-the-movie tune, "The Hands That Built America?" Huh? Absolutely everything in this film is destroyed. Nothing is built but mistrust, greed and excessive bloodshed. Is that Scorsese's vision?

Hard to say. He is so blinded by his vast technical skill as a filmmaker that he loses sight of what he wants to say. His characters develop mutated lives of their own that tend to win Oscars and we are left scratching our heads, lambs led to the slaughter.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

  • A review of Gangs of New York

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