With the dry scrape of a razor blade and the insistent pounding of tribal drums, Martin Scorsese's magnificent epic Gangs Of New York opens on a note of tightly coiled intensity, as rival warriors meet like tectonic plates, threatening to shake the city to its foundations. The quintessential New York director, Scorsese has been building toward this moment his entire career, uncovering the outlaw roots of a city forged in blood and systemic corruption, and lorded over by men who cling to honor codes that evaporate with the rule of law. Nothing less than Scorsese's Birth Of A Nation, Gangs Of New York is a grand achievement in history and anthropology, supporting its ambition and scope with a sumptuous re-creation of the period and an immediacy that allows a forgotten past to barrel into the present. Set mostly in the 1860s, the film centers on Five Points in Lower Manhattan, a lawless underworld of violence and vice where immigrant gangs wrangle over unsettled territory; as one character describes it, Five Points is like "the fingers that clench into a fist." With shades of Sergio Leone, the film opens with a spectacular, snowy showdown between Catholic immigrants and "Nativists," as an Irish boy watches his father (Liam Neeson) die at the hands of the fearsome Daniel Day-Lewis, who gains a permanent hold over the area. The boy grows up to be Leonardo DiCaprio, a hardened reform-school hooligan who returns to Five Points with revenge on his mind, but instead gets drawn into Day-Lewis' ruthless band of thieves, thugs, gamblers, whores, and political operators. Working without the threat of reprisal from the authorities (who are locked into battles of their own) or from crooked statesmen like Jim Broadbent's Boss Tweed, they control a savage place where only "the appearance of the law must be upheld." But just as the arrival of boatloads of Irish immigrants tips the balance of power in the area, DiCaprio's simmering truce with Day-Lewis ends as he enters into a dangerous love triangle with pickpocket Cameron Diaz. Against a historical backdrop this enormous, the actions of a made-up figure like DiCaprio's seem a little insignificant in the scheme of things, a problem exacerbated by his lack of presence in the lead role. But much like Casino, another sprawling tale about the crooked foundation of a major city, Gangs Of New York focuses less on individuals than on the larger forces and events that charted a course for generations to come. Though it features a gallery of memorable supporting performances, particularly in Day-Lewis' galvanizing return to the screen after a five-year absence, the film's main character is America itself, which Scorsese tackles with the peerless technique and exhilarating brio that sets him apart from other major directors. An impassioned synthesis of the themes that have run through Scorsese's career–honor, sin, retribution, jealousy, and social codes–Gangs Of New York turns the melting pot to full boil and witnesses the very moment when chaos is eclipsed by permanent order.
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