STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson
DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese
Maybe nobody told Martin Scorsese the American film epic was a dead form. Or maybe Scorsese was too stubborn to give up a project he had nurtured since 1970, when the epic was still the genre du jour and, on Belfast's mean streets, Protestants and Catholics were spilling one another's blood in a replay of the New York City Irish-Anglo gang wars of the 1860s, which Scorsese was itching to dramatize. Then Star Wars changed the landscape of the epic from our own martial planet to a galaxy far, far away. Today when audiences go into the past, they want fantasy. They're not looking to pay for history lessons.
Thus Gangs with so many detours in its making, and abraded by Scorsese's well-publicized struggle with Harvey Weinstein of Miramax Films may be the epic's last gasp. If so, it is a gasp that sings, howls, like a grand tenor at an Irish wake. Set in the gaudy, pestilential Five Points section of lower Manhattan, Gangs begins with an 1846 street fight: Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis) and his Nativists against Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) and his horde of Hibernians. It ends in 1863 with another rumble Bill now battling Priest's vengeful son Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio)--as the city explodes in riots that escalate from a protest against Civil War conscription to a four-day massacre. In between are violent scenes played out with a ferocity as erotic as it is deranged; murder and mutilation, when performed by men who have been close, are acts more intimate than sex.
There's a triangular conflict an evil man, the rival he has treated like a son and the woman (Cameron Diaz) they both have loved and used with three stars at the top of their form. DiCaprio's winsomeness has matured into a wily assurance that doesn't rely on bravado. Diaz, stifling the giggles, displays a grave, bruised beauty. Day-Lewis struts with the insane intensity and twisted grin of early Robert De Niro; the Butcher loves the monster he has become.
For most of its galloping 2-hr. 45-min. span, Gangs confidently enlarges this triangle to include the sweeping vision of a New York suddenly swarming with immigrants. Displaying an urgency and elegance unmatched by any other living auteur, Scorsese finds drama in visual contrast: a door in a dark, noisy room that is kicked open to reveal a silent, snow-laden street. One amazing panorama shows men coming off a ship from Ireland, being immediately conscripted and outfitted in Northern blue, then put on a troop ship all in a single shot that ends with a view of the troop ship's cargo: 20 coffins on the dock.
As the newcomers gain political power through their numbers, the question isn't whether an Irishman can be elected to city office but whether he can survive his victory. Ruthless toughs mingle with 1860s gentry in a colossal mix of Scorsese's Mean Streets and The Age of Innocence. Gangs is the director's proclamation that all his movies about belligerent young men are modern-dress versions of a crucial melodrama that shaped urban America. Gangs is the prototype for every one of Scorsese's films; it just happens to come after them.
At the film's climax, the Draft Riots engulf the city as Bill and Amsterdam line up for their final face-off a Celtic clan skirmish that has little to do with the larger atrocities. The point may be that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of corpses when anarchy breaks loose. This daring, perhaps confusing declaration of irrelevance suggests that the epic is a form a director like Scorsese must subvert even as he invokes it. But it doesn't erase the sordid splendor of Scorsese's congested, conflicted, entrancing achievement.
--By Richard Corliss