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Ganged Up

Martin Scorsese's "Gangs of New York" recalls the birth of a city and the violence that defined it.

11:00 PM, Dec 19, 2002 • By VICTORINO MATUS
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THE FIRST THING you need to remember when going into a Martin Scorsese film is that it'll probably be long. Get food and drink. Go to the bathroom. Wear comfortable clothing. In fact, the last movie Scorsese made under 2 hours was released in 1986 ("The Color of Money," at 119 minutes). Ever since then, his epics have averaged a running time of 2 hours and 20 minutes (his longest is 1995's "Casino," at 2:58). His second-longest film? "Gangs of New York," the director's latest epic about the city's turbulent history from the gangland turf wars of lower Manhattan in the 1840s culminating in the notorious Draft Riots of 1863.

But a long running time isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially when trying to tackle twenty years of violence and strife in a New York none of us recognizes. Save for a few street names (particularly Canal and Mulberry), Lower Manhattan in the mid-19th century was not so much a city as it was, in Scorsese's own words, "the Wild West in closed confines." Violence was a savage daily occurrence, corruption was rampant (city corruption still exists, but hardly as blatant as during the reign of Boss Tweed and Tammany Hall). And poverty levels were astounding. At one housing complex, babies were supposedly dying at an annual rate of roughly 33 percent--some eaten alive by sewer rats the size of cats.

It is shocking in just how bad a shape the city was at the time. The police so feared the area known as the Five Points (near the present day Bowery, Canal Street, and Broadway) that they refused to interfere in local battles unless they came fully armed and in platoons. Otherwise the neighborhood belonged to the gangs. And this is where Scorsese opens his film--a turf war between the "native" Americans and the newly arrived Irish immigrants.

It's a pulse-quickening first scene in which the forces of the Dead Rabbits (a genuine Five Points gang) gear up in what looks like the bowels of some medieval fortress. These were, in fact, tenements that sank into the ground--what once was a swamp and later became home to poor Irish and freed slaves. The Dead Rabbits are led by Priest Vallon (played by Liam Neeson) while the nativists are led by Bill the Butcher (based on real-life gangster Bill Poole and played magnificently by Daniel Day-Lewis).

Although firearms were already prevalent in the city, the weapons of choice for these gang wars were knives, staves, bludgeons, and brickbats. Scorsese delivers what one expects to be a visceral struggle with all the attendant blood and gore. And it is indeed gory, but his choice of soundtrack music is distracting--a modern-day industrial beat. Imagine the rhythms of a drum machine during the storming of Normandy Beach in "Saving Private Ryan," or guitar reverbs at the battle of Stirling in "Braveheart." It was a surprise, since music is one of the most essential elements in any Scorsese picture. (One of his musical advisers happens to be Robbie Robertson of The Band, who Scorsese filmed in "The Last Waltz." His assistance was helpful in the terrific "Casino" soundtrack but is misplaced here.)

Nevertheless, the fighting ends when Bill the Butcher slays Priest Vallon. His son survives, however, and of course grows up to become "Amsterdam" Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is intent on avenging his father's murder. After years at one of the city's more horrendous boarding schools/orphanages, Amsterdam returns to the Five Points and penetrates the Butcher's inner sanctum, ostensibly as one of his soldiers. But because Bill embraces him as a son, Amsterdam soon finds himself conflicted. Does he take advantage of the trappings of power (the Butcher is closely tied to Boss Tweed), or fulfill his promise of vengeance?

Somewhere in between, Vallon meets a pickpocket named Jenny (Cameron Diaz) who soon finds herself in a predictable love triangle that also includes Vallon's friend Johnny (Henry Thomas in yet another role as a second-fiddle, spurned lover, victim of unrequited love--remember him in "Legends of the Fall"?). Johnny knows Amsterdam's true identity, but does he turn on him to gain favor with Jenny (and Bill the Butcher) or remain silent as his friend gets close enough to kill Bill?

These are in a sense subplots to the movie. The overall picture is of a city that is no stranger to race riots, no stranger to poverty, and no stranger to organized crime. All of these elements are present in the film, reminding the audience how far New York City has come and just how bad things used to be. And there's no more disturbing reminder than the Draft Riots of 1863, in which many nativists and newly arrived Irish both refused to accept the Conscription Act during the height of the Civil War. The Irish did not want to fight for a country they had just arrived in, while nativists refused to fight on behalf of Negro slaves.