Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS 5.1, French Dolby Digital Stereo
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Miramax
Features: See Review
Length: 167 Minutes
Release Date: July 1, 2003

“I took the father, now I’ll take the son. You tell young Vallon I’m gonna paint Paradise Square with his blood…TWO COATS!”

Film ****

When I reviewed Minority Report, I stated that it was indeed the best film of 2002. However, there was a week or two left until 2003, and I had not yet seen Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, which ended up taking the title away from Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi masterpiece. I learned a good lesson, which is to wait until the very end of the year to state your best film picks.

Gangs of New York is a film experience of the most engaging sort. To watch it is to be practically engulfed in the surroundings and amongst the characters. It is one of those rare period epics that does nothing short of making you feel like you are in the exact time and place of the events. No other film of this kind has mastered this art so beautifully like Scorsese’s film, which like so many of his films, will be remembered for years to come.

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Amsterdam, sir.”

“Amsterdam…I’m New York.”

The film is a breathtaking account of a pivotal moment for this country and everyone living in it. Set in New York City from the 1840s to the 1860s, a time when the city was perhaps at its most corrupt, where slimy politicians and disreputable street barons seem to go hand in hand. Anyone who was a pure native of America was more than likely racist, spitting at any immigrant who came into their sight.

Added to this, was the fateful drafting of innocent civilians, and mostly immigrants, to fight in the Civil War. President Lincoln’s tactics were so despised by the town leaders that even in the midst of reenactment plays, the crowd would indulge in shouting at the actor portraying the President. This important time in our nation’s history is the backdrop for the film’s center story, which involves the journey of a young man in search of vengeance.

“The blood stays on the blade, son.”

The real story begins in 1846, as a street war is about to ignite between two gangs, the Irish Dead Rabbits and the American Natavists. Leading the Irish group is the fearless Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), who keeps his young son close by as he and the fellow Irishmen march to the streets. Leading the natives is the bloodthirsty and equally fearsome William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), an intimidating presence who has fought for years to keep the Five Points rid of anything that isn’t pure American. Bill illustrates his harsh beliefs to the fullest when he takes the priest down by a blow of the blade, even as the son is at his dead father’s side.

Twenty years pass, as the son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), has grown into a young man. After spending the better part of his childhood in a reform school, Amsterdam is released with only one thought in mind, that of revenge. He intends to structure an elaborate plot to get back at Bill, which will end up being much more difficult than expected.

“Each of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand, it becomes a fist.”

Returning to the fear-laden Five Points, Amsterdam catches Bill’s eye. He is so impressed by the young man defending himself, that he soon takes Amsterdam under his wing. Bill wastes no time in exposing Amsterdam to the way things maneuver and operate in the Five Points. The Butcher is nothing short of the top dog, as he virtually controls everything in the Five Points. He gets his power through keeping the charismatically corrupt Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), as Mayor, by making sure that each member of the gang puts in a vote. It isn’t before long that the young man is grown used to corruption himself, as he becomes Bill’s personal bookie, as well as bodyguard.

Amsterdam’s plot is slightly thrown off guard when he unexpectedly falls for Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a local pickpocket. He is later stunned to find out that Jenny had at one point supplied various services for The Butcher, which doesn’t sit so well with him. Matters are even more intense when Amsterdam’s only friend in the Five Points, Johnny (Henry Thomas) discovers their affair, since Johnny has a good deal of affection for Jenny, as well.

“You know how I stayed alive this long, all these years…fear.”

What makes this such a great film is the fact that there is never a dull moment. For nearly three hours, this solid epic triumph manages to include moments that are good, great, and greater. Following the turning point of the movie, where Bill the Butcher discovers who the young man really is, Gangs of New York evolves into an unshakable power-fuse of a movie. Bill becomes more blood hungry than ever before, and Amsterdam puts his plan into play by gathering at his desire a gang of his own, resembling his father’s legacy.

You’ve gotta hand it to Mr. Scorsese, he certainly is the most underappreciated filmmaker of our time. Having been nominated for Best Director countless times, for the likes of Raging Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and GoodFellas (for which he especially deserving), you’d think he’s merit some compensation for what is truly his most pivotal masterpiece to date.

“Thank God I died a true American.”

As for Daniel Day-Lewis, this is nothing short of a cinematic acting milestone. He fuels the role of Bill the Butcher with such flawless authenticity, to the point that you totally forget you’re watching Daniel Day-Lewis. Acquiring a menacing accent loaded with rage, Day-Lewis does a remarkable job at making Bill the Butcher a larger than life figure. Each time I’ve watched the movie, I feel a sheer feeling of intimidation by his presence, which is a hard feeling to get from any kind of performance. His incredible work was indeed the best performance I saw in any film of last year. It might as well go on record as one of the best acting pieces ever.

This past year was a good one for Leonardo DiCaprio, as the talented actor managed pull in two great performances (in addition, his con artist role in Catch Me If You Can). Many reviewers didn’t seem too much enthralled by his performance here, but quite frankly, I think it’s the best one he’s given yet. DiCaprio’s performance is solid in a laid back sense. The story is told from his perspective, even as he, like every character of the movie, is overshadowed by Bill the Butcher. DiCaprio does hold his own ground here, acting more with expression and emotion, which he does superbly.

Gangs of New York, a film that was years in the making, is definitive proof that great things come to the audience that waits for it. Martin Scorsese, who is a master filmmaker of many sorts, strikes an outstanding career high with this beautiful and personal masterpiece, which is indeed the Best Film of 2002.

Video ****

“The appearance of the law must be upheld, especially when it’s being broken.”

Like any Scorsese film, Gangs of New York hooks the viewer in with a unique visual style. The director’s uncanny recreation of New York in the 1800s is brought to life in this brilliant transfer of a movie. Miramax has done quite a remarkable job, though some my quibble at the notion that the movie is dived between the two discs, a la Pearl Harbor. Still, the video quality is exceedingly fantastic, complete with undying image sharpness and clarity which payoff, in terms of both Michael Ballhaus’ cinematography and Dante Ferretti’s top-notch production design.

Audio ****

“This is a night for Americans!”

The 5.1 mix is simply magnificent. Many scenes in the film, in addition to the set pieces, provide endless moments of dynamic range, which come as a result of Scorsese’ brilliant and unique technical gifts. Battle scenes are delivered in raw sounding power, whether it be noise from a street crowd or jabs during physical combat. The climatic standoff, as well as the recreation of the Draft Riots, is one sequence that stands out as one of the best ever heard, or seen, in the format. Incredibly done, highest marks!

Features ****

“That, my friends, is the minority vote.”

An outstanding two disc set package from Miramax that will no doubt keep you busy.

Disc 1 includes commentary from Martin Scorsese, four informative featurettes; “Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York”, a costume design featurette, as well as a set design, and lastly, “History of the Five Points.” Also included are multiple angles which utilize the numerous 360-Degree shots of the sets. There is also a trailer and a teaser for the film, plus bonus trailers for additional Miramax releases, including Kill Bill and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.

Disc 2 features the continuation of the Scorsese commentary, plus a Discovery Channel special, “Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York”, a Five Points Study Guide, complete with street vocabulary, and a music video for the powerful U2 song, “The Hands That Built America”. A terrific package!


Gangs of New York is a newfound classic of contemporary cinema, in addition to being a beautiful recreation of a harsh time for the country that is brought to life through passionate directing by Martin Scorsese and a milestone piece of acting by Daniel Day-Lewis.