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Gangs of New York (2002, Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis)

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Scorsese’s epic film is set in 19th-century New York, a lawless place where gangs of recently arrived immigrants from Europe battle the ‘Nativists’, who consider themselves true Americans. The bravura opening sees Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), leader of the Irish-American ‘Dead Rabbits’ gang, prepare to take on the Nativists, led by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). At the end of the ferocious, no-holds barred fight, Vallon lies dead and his son Amsterdam is condemned to a grim orphanage.

He emerges in his early 20s (now played by Leonardo DiCaprio) intent on avenging his father’s death. But friendless and without allies, the only way he can get close to Bill is to become a trusted member of his gang. Complications are provided by Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a skilled pickpocket who was Bill’s lover but now becomes Amsterdam’s, the growing conflict between the lawless gangs, the increasing gentrification of the city and the coming conscription of troops for the Civil War, bitterly resisted by all in the Five Points, the gangs’ stronghold.

Pre-release talk was as much about the over-running budget, the ‘editing’ by studio boss Harvey Weinstein to bring the film in at under three hours and the realism of the massively expensive set at Rome’s Cinecitta as about the film, but on release, it was received with qualified praise. Certainly the look is superb but both DiCaprio and Diaz’s performances, which would normally be acclaimed, are over-shadowed by the Oscar-nominated Day-Lewis. After a self-imposed absence from the screen for five years, he portrays Bill as a complex man, capable of great cruelty and great tenderness, a man who isn’t just a violent thug but a skilled manipulator of City Hall (epitomised by Jim Broadbent as the truly corrupt ‘Boss Tweed’, a real-life figure).

Whenever Day-Lewis is on screen, the eye is automatically drawn to him rather than his two co-stars whose tender relationship would normally be the linchpin of any other film. But this is a minor quibble; Scorsese’s re-telling of a hidden part of America’s painful growing pains is spectacular and if there are a few longeurs, they are more than compensated for by the overall breadth and daring of the director’s vision.

production details
USA – Italy | 167 minutes | 2002

Director: Martin Scorsese
Writers: Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonerghan

cast
Daniel Day-Lewis as William “Bill the Butcher” Cutting
Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon
Cameron Diaz as Jenny Everdeane
Liam Neeson as “Priest” Vallon
Brendan Gleeson as Walter “Monk” McGinn
John C. Reilly as Happy Jack Mulraney
Jim Broadbent as William “Boss” Tweed
Roger Ashton-Griffiths as P.T. Barnum
Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as Jimmy Spoils
David Hemmings as Mr. Schermerhorn
Eddie Marsan as Killoran
Trevor Cooper as Man in Tweed’s Office
Iain McColl as Seamus
John McGlynn as Bowery Boys Leader
Terry O’Neill as Chichesters Leader
Angela Pleasence as Woman Accomplice
Cara Seymour as Hell-Cat Maggie
Barbara Bouchet as Mrs. Schermerhorn
Alec McCowen as Reverend Raleigh
Michael Byrne as Horace Greeley
Gary Lewis as McGloin
Henry Thomas as Johnny Sirocco
Brendan Dempsey as Provost Marshal Registrar
Nick Bartlett as Chichesters Leader
Flaminia Fegarotti as Miss Eliza
Stephen Graham as Shang
Rab Affleck as Plug Uglies Leader
Tim Pigott-Smith as Calvinist Minister
Sean Gilder as Rat Pit Game Master
David Bamber as Passenger on Omnibus
Lucy Davenport as Miss Schermerhorn
John Sessions as Harry Watkins – Lincoln
Giovanni Lombardo Radice as Simon Legree
Peter-Hugo Daly as One-Armed Priest
Peter Berling as Knife Act Caller
Richard Graham as Harvey
Richard Strange as Undertaker
James Ramsey as Arthur
Alex Howden as Assistant Hangman
Richard Syms as Drunken Repeater
Tim Faraday as Plug Uglies Leader
David Nicholls as O’Connell Guard Leader
Sean McGinley as Forty Thieves Leader
Ian Pirie as Slaughter Housers Leader
Ottaviano Dell’Acqua as Bill the Butcher’s Gangmember
Martin Scorsese as Wealthy Homeowner (uncredited)
Massimo Vanni as Bar Bouncer (uncredited)
Salvatore Billa as Native (uncredited)
Alexia Murray as Topsy
Marcello Fonte as Citizen (uncredited)
Vincenzo Tanassi as Fireman (uncredited)
Michele Bevilacqua as Middle Class Man (uncredited)
Paolo Lorimer as Tammany Man (uncredited)

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