Gangs of New York (2002) ★★★★★ 4/5
New York, 1846. The city is wrought with tension. Much of the tension stems from the immigration of Irish into the city. There are the Irish and the American born and they come together to fight for power. "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson) leads the Irish. Bill "the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) leads the natives. The battle ends with Cutting taking the life of Vallon. As Vallon dies in the street, his son clinging to him.
16 years later we catch up with Vallon's son Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio). It is now 1862 and the city is in no better shape then it was when Amsterdam was a child. The Civil War has the city divided politically. Geographically the city is divided by nationalities. The disdain between the groups is so strong that it even resonates in the municipal workers. The firemen are corrupt, the police are corrupt, and the city is lawless.
Amsterdam befriends Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas) and finds himself in the midst of Cutting's underworld where he quietly awaits to avenge his father's death. Cutting does not know who Amsterdam is and quickly takes him under his wing.
Amsterdam also comes across Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). To call her a pick pocket is to say the least. She is a professional thief. Sly and cunning. Her performance is delightful and in my opinion she steals the film. How she was not nominated for an Academy Award is beyond me. To see her step away from romantic comedy and take the risk of appearing in serious drama was quite surprising. While I did not expect anything spectacular from her, I found myself captivated by her performance every moment she was on screen. Diaz wasn't the only treat in the film either. Henry Thomas, best known as Elliot in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, put on a worthy performance as Sirocco. Of course it goes without saying that Day-Lewis and DiCaprio deliver.
The film intensifies as Sirocco becomes jealous of Amsterdam's ability to win the affection of Jennie. Sirocco betrays Amsterdam and informs Cutting that he is in fact Amsterdam's target. He also reveals Amsterdam is the son of "Priest" Vallon. Shortly after this revelation, Cutting and Amsterdam have a showdown of sorts. Amsterdam is quickly taken down and mutated by Cutting. Cutting labels him worthy of being in P.T. Barnum's circus as the only man allowed to live by hand of "The Butcher." After the mutilation, Jennie takes him to the underground caverns and cleans him. Once well and better, he begins to plot revenge. Before long Cutting and Amsterdam are striking at each other by murdering those who were close to the enemy.
In addition to the acting, the sets and costumes are meticulous. Every detail is attended to from the stitching of a dress to the wall paper in the brothel. The task of recreating New York in 1862 was not taken lightly. It is a fine look at American life in New York during the Civil War. Not often do we get to see the impact of that event in films unless it is on the battlefield or if it is examining a family directly affected by the war. Here, the war is not central to any main character in particular, however it's political implications do have an immediate effect on society and how these gangs are further divided based on their beliefs. It also is reflective that the civil unrest is not limited to just the country, but tears the city of New York apart. I love the historical aspect to the film and how it is depicting life in America at that time and expanding on the beliefs of the public. Also intriguing is the actual look into New York at that time. The heathen lifestyles, the disregard for those who are different, the entertainment of the time and the interaction of the groups.
The true highlight of the film is the final scene. The riot is brilliantly depicted and we watch New York crumble as the news wires are delivered. We see looting, murdering, lynching and finally Union troops slaughtering the mob. Cutting and Amsterdam end up face to face in a silent moment, and Amsterdam is finally able to find the closure he has sought for 16 years.
The film closes looking over New York ablaze. There seems to be a hopelessness and that perhaps the city might not recover. However it does. We see the skyline transform bit by bit until we end looking upon the Twin Towers with U2 singing about the hands that built America. Interestingly enough, this film was released the year following the fall of the towers. This leads to thinking about not only those who sacrificed their lives in opposition of the Draft Riots, but those who were taken in modern times by the hands of terrorists. It serves as a reminder that even in the bleakest times there is still hope. It also tells us that the legacies of those who sacrificed will be remembered.