We all know the Civil War took place in the 1860s but few may know what was happening in New York City during that time. As thousands of Irish immigrants poured into the city mostly to an area in lower Manhattan called the Five Points a draft instituted by the Union army created tremendous upheaval. Gangs of New York brilliantly delves into this history under the auspices of a story about Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) a young Irish American hell bent on revenging his father's death. As a small boy Amsterdam watched as his father Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) was brutally murdered in a battle between Vallon's Dead Rabbits a gang of Irish immigrants and the Native Americans a gang of mostly British descendents that detests the Irish. Sixteen years later Amsterdam returns to the Five Points a dismal place where corruption and greed rule to slay the man responsible for his father's death--William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) the Natives' gang leader. Things get complicated when Amsterdam is haplessly drawn into Bill's world becoming the man's confidante and surrogate son while keeping his identity--and true purpose for being there--a secret. In time however all is revealed and just when Amsterdam and Bill are about to make what could be their last stand against each other the city erupts into violence and chaos over the Civil War drafts. The lasting impression the riots leave on New York fuels the tenacious spirit the city possesses today.
It's great to have Day-Lewis back in the acting fold again (he was last seen in 1997's The Boxer) after reportedly spending the last few years as a cobbler's apprentice in Italy. If it weren't for his searing performance as the murderous Bill the Butcher (so named not because of the men he has killed but because he's a butcher by profession) the film wouldn't have nearly the impact it does. Visually yes the film is nearly flawless but Day-Lewis' superb acting makes this good movie great--and brings out the best in his co-stars. DiCaprio despite struggling at times with the Irish accent does an admirable job as Amsterdam especially in the powerful scene that takes place after the young man has saved the elder's life. The unsuspecting Butcher tells Amsterdam how much respect he had for Priest Vallon even while stabbing him in the heart. In his reaction DiCaprio displays a convincingly seething hatred mixed with respect and pity for the aging Bill. Also holding her own is Cameron Diaz as the pickpocket Jenny although she's relegated mainly to playing DiCaprio's love interest (there's immediate chemistry there) and dealing with her troubled history with Bill. Other standouts include Oscar-winning Jim Broadbent as the windbag politician Boss Tween and Brendan Gleeson (The Tailor of Panama) as an Irish immigrant who makes good--and sticks to his principles.
Director Martin Scorsese wants us to love New York City as much as he does--and he wants us to know everything about it. To that end he's chosen to stage an entirely engrossing moment in New York's history and darn it if it takes him 25 years to complete it then so be it. Even with the endless editing tweaks and the changes in its release dates the film is worth the wait. Scorsese paints a vivid picture of the brutality and raw energy of the Five Points which helped build the New York we know today. From images of white snow turned pink by the blood of a gang battle to shots of the Irish being herded off the boats Scorsese completely immerses viewers in the film's universe and it's always refreshing to watch a film and experience a time and place you may know little about--the Irish immigrants their plight and the way they were forced into the military by a desperate Union army. Without the historical context to highlight the film's significant plot points however Gangs would have been flat since the revenge/love story is significantly less interesting than the history save for Day-Lewis' tremendous performance.