Herbert Asbury’s nonfiction book The Gangs of New York -- originally published in the late 1920s -- has delighted readers for decades with its depiction of a 19th-century New York awash with crime, corruption, and poverty and peopled with larger-than-life figures who helped forge Gotham's destiny. Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous, long-awaited adaptation of Asbury’s anecdotal history, shaped for the cinematic medium by screenwriter Jay Cocks, ...
Herbert Asbury’s nonfiction book The Gangs of New York -- originally published in the late 1920s -- has delighted readers for decades with its depiction of a 19th-century New York awash with crime, corruption, and poverty and peopled with larger-than-life figures who helped forge Gotham's destiny. Martin Scorsese’s sumptuous, long-awaited adaptation of Asbury’s anecdotal history, shaped for the cinematic medium by screenwriter Jay Cocks, employs the time-honored dramatic devices of a traditional Hollywood epic, often delivering grandly on its considerable ambitions. There is a romantic triangle, a competition between father figure and son, and a revenge motif that fuels the nearly three-hour drama. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Amsterdam Vallon, an Irish immigrant’s son who sees his father murdered by the ruthless head of a "native" band that rules Lower Manhattan with an iron hand. When he reaches young adulthood, Leo infiltrates the band and becomes the adopted son of its leader, "Bill the Butcher" Cutting Daniel Day-Lewis, whom he has sworn to kill. Cameron Diaz, in the most challenging role of her career, is Jenny, the fetching pickpocket loved by both men. Brendan Gleeson makes a strong impression as a burly Irish merchant who sells his soul for security, as does John C. Reilly, playing a corrupt cop on Cutting’s payroll. Scorsese, who constructed a full-scale replica of New York’s Five Corners neighborhood on the back lot of Rome’s Cinecittà Studio, re-creates the period with remarkable accuracy, although he sacrifices fidelity to the historical record on the altar of flamboyant filmmaking; numerous real-life events are altered and manipulated for dramatic effect, and some episodes are fabricated altogether. The end result, however, is a gripping representation of both splendor and squalor in preindustrial New York, and it earned Academy Award nominations in ten categories, including Best Picture. Leisurely paced, but rich in texture and color, Gangs of New York is an unforgettable movie and a worthy addition to Scorsese’s distinguished oeuvre.
All Movie Guide
Returning to Lower Manhattan's mean streets, Martin Scorsese's profoundly ambitious and engaging Gangs of New York 2002 sheds a different light on America's violent foundation myths. Embedding his signature concerns with Catholic immigrants, rival gangs, and arcane ethical codes in the spectacularly recreated squalor of the Five Points ghetto on the cusp of the 1863 Draft Riots, Scorsese's epic tale of nativist conflict, official corruption, and familial revenge is at once a precursor to his earlier Mob films and a sharp indictment of the usual American bromides about liberty and righteous conflict. From Liam Neeson's magisterial march through a baroque, torch-lit cellar to his death at the hands of Daniel Day-Lewis's eagle-eyed, fiercely charismatic "Bill the Butcher," the opening clash between Irish and "natives" is a stunning, kinetic montage of primitive violence. The U.S. military, however, is responsible for the copious blood on the streets at Gangs' tumultuous conclusion, overwhelming the archaic feud between Bill and Leonardo DiCaprio's Amsterdam and underlining the systemic bloodshed arising from Bill and his cohorts' entrenched racism and classism. Though the more intimate dimensions of the story are a mixed bag of allegorical romance and hoary Oedipal conflict involving DiCaprio, Day-Lewis and Cameron Diaz's California-dreaming thief, the visceral punch of the action scenes is occasionally matched by such quiet interludes as the flag-clad Bill's sublimely twisted disquisition on paternity and honor. A potent and thoughtful cinematic experience despite its flaws, Gangs of New York is Scorsese's most vital work since The Age of Innocence 1993. Lucia Bozzola
New York Times
This is historical filmmaking without the balm of right-thinking ideology, either liberal or conservative. Mr. Scorsese's bravery and integrity in advancing this vision can hardly be underestimated. A.O. Scott
Darkly operatic and brilliantly realized. Michael O'Sullivan
New York Observer
The result reverberates on the screen with a deadly force and fury more intense than anything Mr. Scorsese has yet achieved on the meanest and most beloved streets he could imagine or recall. Andrew Sarris
It realistically puts you into the Civil War North as much as Gone With the Wind does with the romantically idealized South. Mike Clark This is historical filmmaking without the balm of right-thinking ideology, either liberal or conservative. Mr. Scorsese's bravery and integrity in advancing this vision can hardly be underestimated. A.O. Scott