Turf war

Violence and depravity reign in bloody Gangs of New York

Martin Scorsese's America has always been a bloody country. And the criminal violence Scorsese made his metier in Mean Streets and GoodFellas returns in Gangs of New York — an epic disembowelment of our vicious past.

Scorsese's historical spectacle moves the turf war of Jersey mafioso and Little Italy street thugs to 19th-century New York when rival Irish immigrant and "Native" gangs battled over a slice of nightmare called Five Points. A graveyard crossroads of freshly felled corpses, Five Points links the catacombed underground lair where the Irish Dead Rabbits roost and an aboveground hell, a bar called Satan's Circus, ruled by the Natives.

The Native's leader, Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis), is a vision of charismatic barbarity, rubbing his knives together like a hungry fly's legs. He is crafted from the mud of the past and the apocalyptic nightmare of Anthony Burgess' future. Gangs takes place in a medieval landscape of savage extremes where a Hieronymous Bosch melee of poverty, racism, violence and hardship paints a grim picture of America's beginnings well suited to Scorsese's cynicism. New York of the 1800s or of the 1970s is the same place for Scorsese, a richly ambiguous moral universe where the rivers run offal and the hearts are pitch black.

Gangs gives a stylized, nearly seductive dimension to the violent extremes of its most compelling character, Bill. A creature of uncontainable brutality — part Clockwork Orange dandy, part Sweeney Todd — Bill emerges from the cartoonish dust of Gangs' opening street brawl to become a potent, oddly sympathetic figure. In Bill, America's slippery melting pot promises of prosperity and freedom sour into racist turf wars and abject poverty. The anti-Age of Innocence, Gangs feels like Scorsese's most political film, about how the infighting of New York's lower order gangs makes them overlook their larger exploitation by the corrupt political machinery of cops, mayors and generals trying to draft them into a suicidal service in the Union army's own gory turf war.

Decked in silk top hat and greased handlebar mustache, Bill is a brilliantly inspired continuation of the highly charismatic crooks and psychopaths favored in Scorsese's meat cleaver worldview. Bill is a black-hearted anti-hero with a consuming rage to protect his turf. His dark charisma far outshines the feigned nobility of rival thug Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he tries to recapture Five Points for the Irish and avenge his father, killed by Bill decades before.

Amsterdam is as milquetoast and vacuously puffed-up as Dudley Doright, making an oddly conventional protagonist in the overflowing sewers of Scorsesetown. While Bill's objectives are a dark mire of racism, preservation of turf and gleeful bloodletting, Amsterdam works from simpler but far less interesting objectives of revenge and love for the Dickensian pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), who soon retreats into the cinematic background as a lifeless appendage to the male battle at hand.

In this conflict between bloodlusting adult Evil and fair-haired boy Good, one senses Scorsese's effort to inject the conventions of a box office-oriented, traditional film structure into his far more morally de-centered, cruelly irrational universe.

Gangs may have been based on Herbert Asbury's 1927 chronicle of the thieves, prostitutes and drug addicts of 19th-century Manhattan, but it is very much about Scorsese's contemporary vision of New York as a Taxi Driver litany of scumbags: "queen, fairies, dopers, junkies, sick."

Is it any wonder, then, that Bill is the most compelling and sympathetic character in Gangs of New York? He is, after all, a sublime Scorsese creation forged of blood, death and carnage and remade as entertainment. When a rival Irishman tries to assassinate Bill during a theatrical performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Scorsese shows his own interest — not in the melodramatic PC "message" of Harriet Beecher Stowe — but for the rabble, down in the theater audience. Brandishing his deadly cutlery and chucking meat cleavers at former lover Jenny for entertainment, Bill is Scorsese in a nutshell, a man enamored with violence who plays to a bloodthirsty crowd.