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Scorsese Returns to the Mean Streets of a Century and a Half Ago for a Grand and Muddled Epic

Original Gangstas: (from left) Daniel Day-Lewis and Leonardo Dicaprio face off in Gangs of New York.

By Ian Grey | Posted

Early word had it that Martin Scorsese's long-awaited Gangs of New York first clocked in at well over three hours, but was repeatedly cut to its present 160 minutes. So it's possible that there exists a version of Scorsese' Civil War-period Manhattan saga that fully warrants his 30-year grand obsession. But all we have is this version, a detail-packed partial masterpiece that will leave audiences wowed but befuddled; where every stunning battle scene, otherworldly 1800s urban tableau, and Daniel Day-Lewis acting fusillade is matched by abrupt weed-whacker cuts, fragmented exposition, and a general thematic muddle.

It's 1846. In torch-lit caves beneath the slums of the Five Corners (located just below the current intersection of Little Italy/Chinatown), Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) readies his "tribe" of recent Irish immigrant warriors, the Dead Rabbits.

Dressed in furs and bearing bludgeons that wouldn't be out of place in a Conan epic, the Rabbits rise to the snowy surface to battle their opposite numbers, the Native Americans ("Nativists") who claim, via longer residence, to be the real Americans and dress in two-foot-tall top hats. They're led by handlebar-mustachioed, glass-eyed William Cutting (Day-Lewis), aka Bill the Butcher.

The ensuing battle is to mass conflagration what the fight scenes in Raging Bull were to any other boxing film, a bloody adagio of poetic slaughter, rage, and regret made visually rhapsodic via Scorsese's staging and the fast, slow, and freeze-motion edits courtesy gold standard Scorsese editor Thelma Schoonmaker. While his son watches, Vallon is killed by Cutting, who declares the Dead Rabbits a dead issue.

Sixteen years later: In one of many incredible sets built by human hands (as opposed to weightless CGI) at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, we see a tenement split in half, exposing a teeming beehive of human wretchedness and avarice. There's Hellcat Maggie (Cara Seymour), teeth shaved to vampire points and prone to trading human ears for grog. Gangs calling themselves the Slaughterhousers, Bowery B'hoys, and Plug Uglies sport colorful getups to match. There are warring police and fire companies, free but despised Africans, and bands of he-she whores among the more common trollops. The Corners are by now lorded over by Cutting, with ultimate power ceded to stupendously corrupt Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent).

Vallon's now-grown son returns, calling himself Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio). Amsterdam, hungry for vengeance, wins the admiration of Cutting, and the favors of strumpet pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). But Cutting eventually tumbles to Amsterdam's real ID, and the tribal war is on again amid the last-reel chaos of New York's Draft Wars, where the rioting poor tore up the town for four days in protest over forced conscription.

Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan's screenplay (based on Herbert Astbury's 1928 book) is sometimes overly schematic, but signs of ill-advised postproduction truncation and compression abound. An elegant pan showing the East River docks is chopped off midpan. Jenny dwindles from full-blooded character to shrinking violet. It's impossible to understand which factions accept or reject African-Americans, so we're not sure who is responsible for a horrific lynching. Basic information--like, what happened to young Amsterdam during his 16 years in the "House of Refuge"?--is missing, glossed over at high velocity, or barely explained in voice-over. And then there's the distraction of the audience playing constant catch-up with the period's details, which also takes away from the assembled performers' hard work.

DiCaprio comes off as sullenly adequate and Diaz is saucy enough (if a bit too hygienic-looking), but Day-Lewis owns the movie. He's got the bottled-up volatility of early Robert De Niro and a swagger that suggests that he's spoken with every individual muscle and they all agree on his slightest whim. His accent shifts deftly between Dutch and German inflections that occasionally lands on basic Brooklynite deez, dem, and doz. And he's funny in a gruesome/gleeful Olde New York Freddy Krueger way. But Day-Lewis' Oscar-caliber muggings can't force the movie to make coherent thematic sense.

Gangs toys with being an examination of the strain of intolerance that's peculiar to the American experiment. (In reality, the Nativists called themselves "Know Nothings," the use of which might have amusingly illustrated the American tendency toward self-righteous ignorance.) Scorsese never truly engages the suggestion that there's an Element X in the idea of America that makes it able to endure bad eggs and worse circumstances. But even with all these problems and more, Scorsese's magnificent old-school craft and Day-Lewis' turn make catching Gangs of New York on the big screen a must. And there's always the extended DVD to pray for.

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