In 1860's lower Manhattan, the Five Points section is a dark, teeming corner of the city known for vice and chaos. Into this frontier of lawlessness arrives the young Irish American, Amsterdam Vallon. Amsterdam is the orphaned son of the slain Priest Vallon--once chief warrior of the Dead Rabbits gang that rallied the Irish immigrants of...
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In 1860's lower Manhattan, the Five Points section is a dark, teeming corner of the city known for vice and chaos. Into this frontier of lawlessness arrives the young Irish American, Amsterdam Vallon. Amsterdam is the orphaned son of the slain Priest Vallon--once chief warrior of the Dead Rabbits gang that rallied the Irish immigrants of the Five Points. After 16 years in a "House of Refuge," Amsterdam has returned to the Five Points to hunt down his father's killer. His target is William Cutting (aka "Bill the Butcher") who has since become the merciless new leader of the neighborhood and detests the newly arrived immigrants. Each year, on the anniversary of Priest Vallon's death, the victory is commemorated with a celebration--with invitations handed out by way of the Butcher himself. Amsterdam's plan is clear: to lie in wait and slay his father's killer. While waiting for that night, Amsterdam works his way deep into the Butcher's inner circle, a world of alternating honor and cruelty from which he can only hope to escape. But the closer he gets to Bill, the more he falls under his spell and becomes conflicted--playing the role of the man's surrogate son while keeping the true secret of his past in the shadows. At the same time, Amsterdam meets Jenny Everdeane, an enigmatic pickpocket whose fierce independence fascinates him. When details of her closely linked past with Bill the Butcher emerge, the relationship between the three intensifies. Amsterdam's fight for family honor, freedom and the woman he loves ultimately collides with a pivotal moment in New York and American history: the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots. This uprising, fueled by new Americans like Amsterdam, will have repercussions that will spread through the Five Points to the halls of Government and beyond, and reveal a tenacious spirit in the city that endures.
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A young Irish American fights for family honor and freedom during a pivotal moment in New York and American history: the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots.
We all know the Civil War took place in the 1860s, but few may know what was happening in New York City during that time. As thousands of Irish immigrants poured into the city, mostly to an area in lower Manhattan called the Five Points, a draft instituted by the Union army created tremendous upheaval. Gangs of New York brilliantly delves into this history, under the auspices of a story about Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young Irish American hell bent on revenging his father's death. As a small boy, Amsterdam watched as his father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), was brutally murdered in a battle between Vallon's Dead Rabbits, a gang of Irish immigrants, and the Native Americans, a gang of mostly British descendents that detests the Irish. Sixteen years later, Amsterdam returns to the Five Points, a dismal place where corruption and greed rule, to slay the man responsible for his father's death--William ''Bill the Butcher'' Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), the Natives' gang leader. Things get complicated when Amsterdam is haplessly drawn into Bill's world, becoming the man's confidante and surrogate son while keeping his identity--and true purpose for being there--a secret. In time, however, all is revealed, and just when Amsterdam and Bill are about to make what could be their last stand against each other, the city erupts into violence and chaos over the Civil War drafts. The lasting impression the riots leave on New York fuels the tenacious spirit the city possesses today.
It's great to have Day-Lewis back in the acting fold again (he was last seen in 1997's The Boxer) after reportedly spending the last few years as a cobbler's apprentice in Italy. If it weren't for his searing performance as the murderous Bill the Butcher (so named not because of the men he has killed, but because he's a butcher by profession), the film wouldn't have nearly the impact it does. Visually, yes, the film is nearly flawless, but Day-Lewis' superb acting makes this good movie great--and brings out the best in his co-stars. DiCaprio, despite struggling at times with the Irish accent, does an admirable job as Amsterdam, especially in the powerful scene that takes place after the young man has saved the elder's life. The unsuspecting Butcher tells Amsterdam how much respect he had for Priest Vallon, even while stabbing him in the heart. In his reaction, DiCaprio displays a convincingly seething hatred mixed with respect and pity for the aging Bill. Also holding her own is Cameron Diaz as the pickpocket Jenny, although she's relegated mainly to playing DiCaprio's love interest (there's immediate chemistry there) and dealing with her troubled history with Bill. Other standouts include Oscar-winning Jim Broadbent as the windbag politician Boss Tween and Brendan Gleeson (The Tailor of Panama) as an Irish immigrant who makes good--and sticks to his principles.
Director Martin Scorsese wants us to love New York City as much as he does--and he wants us to know everything about it. To that end, he's chosen to stage an entirely engrossing moment in New York's history, and darn it, if it takes him 25 years to complete it, then so be it. Even with the endless editing tweaks and the changes in its release dates, the film is worth the wait. Scorsese paints a vivid picture of the brutality and raw energy of the Five Points, which helped build the New York we know today. From images of white snow turned pink by the blood of a gang battle to shots of the Irish being herded off the boats, Scorsese completely immerses viewers in the film's universe, and it's always refreshing to watch a film and experience a time and place you may know little about--the Irish immigrants, their plight and the way they were forced into the military by a desperate Union army. Without the historical context to highlight the film's significant plot points, however, Gangs would have been flat, since the revenge/love story is significantly less interesting than the history, save for Day-Lewis' tremendous performance.
Gangs of New York is a gritty and epic history lesson about one of the most notorious cities in the world--you may have to take notes for the test afterwards.
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