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Review: Epic 'Gangs' Oscar-worthy effort

By Paul Clinton

Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis turn in superb performances in Scorsese's masterful period piece.
Cameron Diaz and Daniel Day-Lewis turn in superb performances in Scorsese's masterful period piece.

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(CNN) -- It's been 30 years in the making, but Martin Scorsese has created a cinematic masterpiece with "Gangs of New York."

The legendary director lured Daniel Day-Lewis out of his self-imposed retirement, nabbed Leonardo DiCaprio for one of his first major film roles since "Titanic" in 1997, and topped it off with signing one of the industry's hottest female stars, Cameron Diaz. He then swept them away to Rome for months of intense production. The result is a grand American epic, a genre Scorsese has never attempted before.

What is not new for Scorsese is the setting of the story. New York City has always been his muse, and "Gangs" is no exception. However, instead of the mean streets of modern day Gotham, this tale takes place between the 1840s and the 1860s.

During that time in U.S. history, Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine were flooding into New York by the thousands. There to greet them were gangs of "native Americans" -- translation, any Western Europeans who had immigrated earlier.

Street battles, inner conflict

Both groups settled into the Five Points section of Manhattan, a cesspool of corrupt politicians, street crime, dirt, disease and poverty. Even Charles Dickens, on a visit to the city, was amazed at the "filth and dirt and drunken frays." The tensions between the "native Americans" and the Irish often broke out into violent street battles, leaving many dead or wounded.

One such battle results in the death of an Irishman named Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), at the hands of a local thug named William Cutter, a.k.a. "Bill the Butcher" (Day-Lewis). Witnessing the death is Vallon's young son, Amsterdam. The boy, helpless to intervene, swears future vengeance for the murder of his father.

DiCaprio plays a young man coping with his desire for revenge.
DiCaprio plays a young man coping with his desire for revenge.

The story flashes forward 20 years and young Amsterdam is now a grown man, played by DiCaprio. Cutter is now fully in control of Five Points, and every year on the anniversary of Vallon's death, he commemorate his victory over the Irishman. Amsterdam's plan is to get close to Cutter, and then kill him at the height of his celebration, in full view of everyone. While biding his time, Amsterdam works his way deeper and deeper into Cutter's inner circle.

At the same time, Amsterdam meets Jenny Everdeane (Diaz), a beautiful pickpocket with a fiery temper and a strong sense of independence. He falls in love, but to his horror he discovers that Jenny and Cutter have a common past. It's one more link with the bloody "Butcher," and not a link he wants to have.

At this point, Amsterdam becomes torn. He finds himself falling under Cutter's spell. But while he struggles with his inner conflict, his true identity is revealed. The young man suddenly realizes that the Irish have overwhelming numbers against the "native Americans" and grabs his destiny, becoming the leader of the Irish in Five Points.

At this same time in history, the Civil War is raging and many immigrants are drafted into service for a country in which they have barely arrived, while others buy their way out of the draft. Against this backdrop the showdown between the "Butcher" and Amsterdam -- and the film's climax -- is set in motion.

Believable story, believable performances

Scorsese is at the peak of his powers with "Gangs Of New York." From "Mean Streets" to "Taxi Driver" to "Goodfellas," Scorsese has been fascinated with stories about survival against all odds, and "Gangs" fits the bill.

Scorsese is not only a highly-skilled director, he's also a historian, and this story has been expertly researched down to the tiniest details. It feels totally authentic throughout. The camera work and the editing are astounding. This is a highly violent film, but you never really see the violence due to the expert editing. And the director's use of a steadicam to provide the points of view of his characters as they travel the filthy streets is extremely effective.

DiCaprio gives a strong, expert, and totally believable performance as Amsterdam. He has emerged from his "Titanic" heartthrob image as an adult with enormous range and power. Not since "What's Eating Gilbert Grape" (1993) has he given a performance of this depth. In combination with "Catch Me If You Can," it's a sure bet that 2003 will be a very good year for the 28-year-old actor.

Day-Lewis also turns in a spectacular performance as "Bill the Butcher." He reportedly stayed in character throughout the production, which had to have been strange to say the least, but it's his usual mode of operation when making a film.

Diaz basically plays "the girlfriend" here, but she has some strong scenes and pulls them off expertly. She also manages to remain beautiful under all that dirt and grime required for a pickpocket from Five Points.

Scorsese has been up for the Best Director Oscar three times, and three times he has lost. Hopefully, he'll get a fourth shot. He also has a chance at a Golden Globe. "Gangs" is nominated for best drama, and he is nominated for best director.

Special note: Look for Scorsese -- and his wife and children -- in the film as a wealthy Upper East Side family having dinner in their plush townhouse.

"Gangs of New York" opens nationwide on Friday, December 20, and is rated R with a running time of 168 minutes.

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