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Photograph by Sam Emerson

Everything But the Hell's Kitchen Stovepipe: Leonardo DiCaprio (right) matches hat wear with Daniel Day-Lewis (left front) in 'Gangs of New York.'

Bury the Hatchet

'Gangs of New York' isn't ready to rumble

By Richard von Busack

THERE IS so much wrong with Gangs of New York that it's nigh impossible to suppose how the film could have gone right. Watching the fancy footwork of Gangs of New York's defenders will be much more edifying than watching Martin Scorsese's newest. The long-delayed epic portrays the 1860s-era Five Points neighborhood of New York City as a slaughterhouse. Tyler Anbinder's recent history, Five Points, notes that by then the district had improved since its worst days, in the 1830s. This was due to police and religious groups; the latter "deserve much of the credit for the reduction in crime and suffering," Anbinder writes. In Scorsese's massively sour epic, almost everyone in New York is crooked. The reformers are but titillation-seeking gawkers, the police just skull busters with brass buttons, the priests just prune-faced prudes.

In this heavily fictionalized account, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) is charged by his father, the head of the Dead Rabbits gang, with destroying gang lord Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis dressed like Professor Fate in The Great Race). It's kind of a Batman story. Amsterdam has a cave he retires to, where he communes with his desire for vengeance. Disguising himself as a nameless orphan, Amsterdam works his way into the organization of his father's killer. Bill may be a bigot and a fantastic sadist, but he still swoons over Amsterdam's dead dad: "the last honorable man; he gave me the finest beating I ever took; he spared me because he wanted me to live in shame" and so on.

In an old Hollywood movie, where the violence hadn't been amped up to Hong Kong standards, we'd accept Bill's purpleness. Moreover, the incredible sordidness might be thrilling in a small-scale film (imagine Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels in top hats and waistcoats). But Gangs of New York isn't just a film about ugly slums, it's physically ugly. It takes place on a set built at Rome's Cinecittá, underneath a monotonous gray scrim as gloomy as a month of Sundays. The large cast gathers on this film's stages. Like spear carriers in an opera, they freeze as the lead actors speechify. It's like watching a mural.

The gusto DiCaprio displays for violence suggests villain roles in his future. He's still a juvenile, the Gilbert Grape of Wrath. In many moods and many scenes, nothing DiCaprio does silences that voice in your head that keeps repeating, "Jeez, what a twerp." Bill and Amsterdam are rivals over a pickpocket named Jenny (Cameron Diaz, who, with an Irish accent and velveteen gowns, looks like she wandered in from the Dickens Faire). Publisher Horace Greeley and the famously corrupt politician William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) just pad the plot, as if they were celebrity cameos. The film's really about Scorsese's understandable modern despair over corrupt politicians and lie-based wars; thus, it's depressingly anachronistic. Showing Bill carve dead porkers with the same knives he uses on people, Gangs of New York insists that America's past was nothing but a pigpen. The argument might have been more persuasive if the film didn't overreach itself on the mythic/religious level; a pig with a rosary around its neck is still a pig.

Gangs of New York (R; 160 min.), directed by Martin Scorsese, written by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, photographed by Michael Ballhaus and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the December 19-25, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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