A year of delays, public battles, and running time questions have lead to this: one of the finest motion pictures of the year. Martin Scorsese's "Gangs Of New York" (IMDb listing) is a vicious, hard fought film that shows that Scorsese is capable of making motion pictures bigger than life, and yet preserving the awe of epic filmmaking that's been lost for years.
The year is 1846 and a clan of Irish immigrants, lead by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) have come to the deadliest part of the burgeoning New York City, the Five Corners, to battle with a madman named William Cutting, a.k.a Bill The Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), and his horde of Anglo-Saxon "natives." When Vallon is killed by William, his son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) is sent to an orphanage, and spends the next 16 years stewing in his plans for retribution. Arriving back at the Five Corners, Amsterdam plots his way to William, who now runs the city. Seeking help from all the individual gangs that creep and swindle around the streets, plus assistance from a pickpocket (Cameron Diaz) who has direct access to William, Amsterdam tries to overthrow the Butcher. And all the while, the city is bulging with the violence that will culminate in the draft riots of 1863.
Working from historical events, and a screenplay written by frequent collaborator Jay Cocks (along with work by Kenneth Lonergan and Steven Zaillian), "Gangs Of New York" is easily the grandest film Scorsese has ever attempted. After years of soul-searching films ("Bringing Out The Dead," "Kundun") "Gangs" opens the director to a scale of filmmaking not touched since the days of David Lean, with its wide open spaces, hundreds of extras, and a story that seethes with passion. The film maintains the director's expected reverence for New York City, and some brutal, wholly necessary violence as well (the gang battle scenes are the film's outstanding achievement), but the magnitude of the film is what is so remarkable. Scorsese works on both an intimate revenge story and the backdrop of the Draft Riots, seamlessly weaving the two stories to a great result.
To fully appreciate Scorsese's sprawling "Gangs" vision, you must look back to his 1999 documentary "My Voyage To Italy," a 4-hour soliloquy on the Italian cinema detailing the director's influences. Inhaling large helpings of Rossellini, De Sica, and Visconti, along with a desire to make a full-fledged production in Rome's fabled Cinecitta studios, Scorsese has made a film that's as big as life, yet comes pouring from his heart. A magnum opus of construction, design and performance, "Gangs" is as close to an honest-to-god epic as we're going to see in a long time.
The stunning art direction by Robert Guerra and Stefano Maria Ortloni, with production design by Dante Ferretti ("Casino," "Bringing Out The Dead"), forms a strikingly authentic city for the story to exist in. Few, if any, computer landscapes are used, with real sets built 360-degrees around and featuring elaborate workmanship. The result is a film that's staggering to behold. Every conceivable period detail has been accounted for: the slimy wax on the tips of moustaches; the muddy, dangerous Welcome To America streets; the yellow, decaying teeth; and the knife-pocked wood that holds up the rotting buildings of the Five Corners. While other filmmakers scramble to the keyboards to fill up their vistas, Scorsese had his fiction built for real, helping the actors to find the truth in their surroundings, and giving the production a bona fide glow that isn't betrayed for even one frame of the film. It's a flawless production.
Also faultless is the work from actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The normally reclusive actor (this is his first film since leaving the business in 1997), comes out of hiding to deliver a thrilling performance as the fiery demon, Bill The Butcher. The work is unexpected, repulsive, and splendidly sadistic, and Day-Lewis handily steals the film from an impressive cast of acting heavyweights, including sturdy lead work from DiCaprio, and supporting performances from Jim Broadbent, Brendan Gleeson, Liam Neeson, John C. Reilly, David Hemmings and Henry Thomas. This is the second pairing of Day-Lewis and Scorsese (the equally brilliant "The Age Of Innocence" being the other), but I hope it isn't their last. If having Day-Lewis in retirement means performances like this one every decade, than I wish him a happy time. This type of acting is worth the wait.
"Gangs Of New York" will have you ducking your head and thrilled that Scorsese's considerable risks have paid off. This is magnificent filmmaking.
Filmfodder Grade: A+