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Ye Olde New York

Ye Olde Gang Bang- Martin Scorsese and company cut a New York slice of 19th-century turf war.


Based on Herbert Asbury's 1928 chronicle of the warring factions that lawlessly ruled over the southern tip of Manhattan (what would today be the Lower East Side), Scorsese's film opens with the violent collision of two of the area's gangs. Making his way through a cave-like structure, walking past the marled faces of beast-like men carrying axes and blacksmiths working metal into ominous weapons, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) leads his young son from the hellish underground of this foreign world out into the snow. It is there that Priest and his men will face off against William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his minions for the right to run the central area known as the Five Points. What ensues is a gruesome attack in which the white snow is quickly soaked through with blood, as Bill the Butcher finally kills Priest while his young son looks on.

Returning from the orphanage some 15 years later as Leonardo DiCaprio, Priest's boy makes his way back to the Five Points to seek revenge on Bill. Now running the area, Bill and his men do the strong-arming for the crooked politician Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent). A strange breed of patriot, Bill thinks of himself as "a nativist," fighting the immigrants (predominantly Irish Catholics) who have beset the city, trying to keep control in the hands of his own perceived kind, the Protestants who supposedly founded the country. And, as the showy butcher with one eye and a curled handlebar mustache, Day-Lewis is brilliant as the king thug who is equal parts entertainer and intimidator. Admitting that his secret to leadership is keeping up the "spectacle" of fear, the long departed thespian delivers an unforgettable performance as the gruesome, yet endearing, villain of the Five Points. More underwhleming is DiCaprio, whose presence is completely overshadowed by Day-Lewis. As the American-born orphan who calls himself Amsterdam, it's easy to see why DiCaprio's vengeful lad would fall in with Bill and his men, as he quickly does. And, when the boy becomes the Butcher's beloved right hand man he is torn between his initial goal of killing the man who murdered his father and betraying the ruthless local boss, who he's come to respect and, perhaps, love.

Revealing this early city for what it was: a corrupt, ruthless, dirty, destitute hell-hole, Scorsese's Five Points is the melting pot writ large. With throngs of immigrants arriving daily, the area is defined by melding accents and varied faces. Although the focus is on the Irish, Scorsese takes great pains to ensure that the stories of the Blacks and other immigrants scraping by in the abysmal spot are not overlooked. And, hoping to highlight the effect of the Civil War, the director includes multiple shots of immigrants arriving off of one boat only to be sent away on another, stamped in as American citizens and immediately drafted to "fight for their country." While bringing the national crisis into the spotlight is interesting, the effect is a bit overwhelming. When Scorsese attempts to bring the film out of the Five Points, "Gangs" unravels a bit and loses track of its focus. It's here that the director's ambition comes up against the need for continuity and, to some respect, restraint. Luckily, Scorsese doesn't linger on such details long enough to completely lose sight of his story.

The national and local tension fuses with the mounting Five Points conflicts in the explosive finale of the film, which depicts the violent draft riots that occurred in New York City in 1863. A perfect coda for the film, the riots begin with throngs from the Five Points marching uptown to loot the ornate townhouses and kill the wealthy inhabitants. When the army is sent out to squelch the unruly masses, the violent chaos unleashed wipes out hundreds of unarmed citizens from downtown, as well as the Five Points itself. It's amidst the debris and canon blasts that Scorsese's vision comes alive: it reminds us that New York, like America, was a town built out of friction and corruption, and on the backs of the poor outsiders who came to make it their home.

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