At times Martin Scorsese’s affection for American history can translate into touching, even brilliant filmmaking. In the case of Gangs of New York, it makes for a bloody and almost wholly fallacious mess.The story is set in the 1860s in New York City and follows a young man named Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he rises in power with the gang of “native Americans.”
His purpose is to get close to the leader of the gang, Bill “The Butcher” Poole (Daniel Day Lewis) to exact revenge for the murder of his father (Liam Neeson), who more than a decade before was the leader of the gang known as the “Dead Rabbits.”
The conflicts in the film are about whether immigrants (the “Dead Rabbits”) belong in America and deserve the same rights as “real Americans.”
Eventually Amsterdam works his way to the top of the gang, and finds himself in a moral struggle with himself over whether or not to kill the man who killed his father and then became his friend.
During his rise to power, Amsterdam befriends Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket with her own questionable ties to “The Butcher,” who becomes his accomplice and obligatory love interest.
Although the film came away with an astounding 10 Oscar nominations, only one is actually deserving of a nod, and that is the performance by Lewis, who plays a villain who is brutal at times and painfully human at others.
But there are other painful aspects to the film: most notably the performances by DiCaprio and Diaz, who were, as ever, shallow and unconvincing in their relationships with each other and the other characters.
And as for the script, Scorsese is obviously more interested in a box-office hit than integrity. There were gang wars in the 1860s, but, contrary to the film, they were never slaughters. In fact, they rarely resulted in fatalities.
One might notice the large number of Asians onscreen. While it makes for a nice diverse picture, there were very few Asians in North America at that time, even in California, and to see an Asian in New York in the 1860s warranted front-page news.
Also, the British never fired on New York during the Civil War, in case anyone noticed the cannonballs flying from British ships at the end of the film.