Gangs of New York
***.6 GM
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson


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Look at this shit:

I'm tellin' ya - Leo gains 50 pounds in this movie, he becomes Jack Black - same thing during his long-haired bits of Catch Me If You Can. Freakin' WEIRD. I may have to watch "Titanic" again just to see how consistent this is.

Anyway, about the film. I'm not sure if I love or am off-put by the concept of a big three-hour film building to a climactic, if obvious, street war only to suddenly introduce massive historical chaos that dwarfs the storyline we've been following for the entire film and makes it seem utterly insignificant. I'm leaning towards love at the moment.

The story is thus: The war between the natives and the immigrants in Civil War-era New York City is raging in a place called the Five Points. The natives despise the immigrants, thinking that they're imposing on a land they had no part in liberating, and they're led by a mustachioed villain calling himself The Butcher (Day-Lewis). The immigrants simply want America to make good on its word and let them live in peace, and they're led by Priest (Neeson). The film starts off with a huge street fight in which Priest nobly falls to the Butcher's onslaught, which the killer respects. Too bad he killed the guy in front of his son, because he grows up to be Leonardo DiCaprio with a hankerin' for some revenge and a desire to nail Cameron Diaz.

Bill "The Butcher" Poole is not the focus, but he's really what makes the film worthwhile. He's a greasy, dastardly and unpredictably violent criminal that somehow manages to be honorable in a twisted way and reasonably charismatic when he wants to be, despite a silly top hat and that huge mustache and creepy glass eye. DiCaprio's hero with the flickering Irish accent is done well enough to keep things lively, interesting and passionate, a nice and noble foil for the Butcher's villainy.

While it's a stirring saga of gang warfare, history, vengeance and turmoil, the actual plot points pretty much play out as a by-the-numbers son-avenges-father story, until the final battle is about to go down. This is when the riots against 'conscripted service in this man's army' explode all over the city, completely engulfing the tale we've been following for the last two and a half hours and the resulting need for warships to actually open fire directly on the city to quell the unrest renders everything pretty much moot. Instinctively, this causes a bit of bristling. "Where's my predictable yet morally satisfying denoument?" you may find yourself wondering. "Where's the all-important life-and-death struggle between hero and villain I crave to sate my need for seeing justice done and comeuppance delivered?"

The sweeping historical epic swerves at the last moment and brings us a chaotic and hellish groundswell of savage hatred and violence throughout the city, and while it's a little unsettling when you're going by the numbers and suddenly they all turn into random punctuation marks and chicken scratches, it's incredibly satisfying to notice the pattern therein. The brutality and bloodthirstiness thought only reserved for the dregs of society and the criminal element need only the right provocation to surface in everybody that may otherwise fancy themselves law-abiding citizenry. This saga of intrigue and betrayal in one neighborhood in this immigrant shanty town does indeed become insignificant when faced with the massive internal strife tearing the country apart at the seams.

There's no easy answer, there's no sense of righteousness, nor is there a feeling of a mission being accomplished, even when The Butcher is finally taken down. There's just this emptiness, dread and foreboding, a simultaneous awakening into realizing the full scope of the events around them and succumbing to a long sleep of despair, sorrow and grief. There's an aspect to some underworld psyches that tends to believe that they may have made wrong turns, stupid mistakes and irrevocably ruined their lives, but a small comfort can be taken in the thought that not everybody has botched their gifts, and the educated and ostensibly more forthright and less unsavory folks have their shit together and have made good with their lives - and for them, there's not much more unsettling than forceful, devastating evidence that the rest of the world can be just as fucked up as they are. When an entire city is engulfed in the street violence usually reserved only for the career criminals, those criminals might just be at a loss for what to do. That's some of the soul searching that can arise with an ending like this.

Enough spitballing on the nature of crime, though. This is a well-done crime saga with a sudden swerve into historical madness that takes what would have been a cool yet ordinary story up to the level of true cinematic bitchin'ness.

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