Film Talk: Looking Back – Spit, grit and butchery with Gangs of New York
With the Scorsese/DiCaprio dream team back together this week with Killers of the Flower Moon, it's time to look back at their first beautiful collaboration.
An epic historical drama packed with grit, spit and violence (it is Scorsese after all), Gangs of New York dropped in the early noughties and set the bar for the decade.
Based on Herbert Asbury's 1927 book of the same name, the film starred DiCaprio as its young lead, opposite masterful elder statesman Daniel Day-Lewis.
Set in The Big Apple of 1863, the flick follows a long-running Catholic–Protestant feud erupting into violence, just as an Irish immigrant group is protesting against military conscription.
With a cast completed by Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Stephen Graham, Eddie Marsan, Liam Neeson and Brendan Gleeson, this one oozed talent from every pore and anticipation for its release (particularly with man-of-the-moment DiCaprio front-and-centre) was high. Scorsese had long since proven himself as the maestro of the mob movie, but this time his protagonists and antagonists were gangsters of a different nature. The subject matter would surely still turn to gold at his Midas touch, but would audiences flock to the box office?
The year is 1863. Lower Manhatten's crime-riddled district known as the Five Points is ruled by vicious gang leader, Bill 'The Butcher' Cutting (Day-Lewis). Cutting believes that America should be for Americans, and staunchly opposes the waves of immigrants, mostly Irish, that are entering New York. Though one is about to make a particular impression.
Sixteen years after the murder of his father at Cutting's hands, Amsterdam Vallon (DiCaprio) is returning to his boyhood home, hell-bent on retribution.
As he works to ingratiate himself with Cutting and rise into his confidence, Amsterdam becomes attracted to local pickpocket and grifter Jenny Everdeane (Diaz), a woman with her own connections to 'The Butcher'.
Meanwhile the American Civil War rages on, and recent laws forcing conscription into the Union army are leading tensions in Manhatten to rise. With violence surely set to erupt, will Amsterdam get his chance for revenge before the Five Points becomes a bloodbath once more, and more importantly, before Cutting discovers his true intentions?
Gangs of New York was in fact wrapped by 2001, but its release was delayed due to the 9/11 attacks. It was finally released in 2002, and grossed over $193 million worldwide, making it a box office success.
Critics rightly applauded the flick, and particularly the performance of Day-Lewis. The man is such a machine that it is hard to pick out a 'career best' turn from him, yet his cold, vindictive and seductive portrayal of Bill Cutting is a sure-fire contender.
DiCaprio's performance as Vallon was world-class, and spawned an on-going collaborative relationship with Scorsese that has sired some of the greatest films of the last 20 years, including The Aviator, Shutter Island and The Wolf of Wall Street.
Gangs of New York certainly made its mark, receiving ten nominations at the 75th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director for Scorsese and Best Actor for Day-Lewis. For most people it is not the first Leo/Marty movie that comes to mind – nor does it surpass The Departed as being the best – but this one is the original, and seeds of the magic that was to come are apparent when re-watching it two decades later. A brilliant bit of movie-making with a cast that punched into the stratosphere – just remember never to get on your butcher's bad side...