Equally oblivious is Bill the Butcher himself, who, in the way of movies since time immemorial, takes a shine to this lad with the murderous rage and makes him a surrogate son. In fact, so much of "Gangs" is spent on Amsterdam shelving his revenge and just chilling with Bill and the lithe pickpocket and confidence woman Jenny Everdeane (Diaz) he takes a violent fancy to that the film has to apologize for him with a voice-over line about how warm and cozy it is to be under a dragon's wing.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who apparently listened to Eminem to keep his rage level up, gives an impeccable performance as the dandified, psychotic dragon Bill the Butcher. He's a self-consciously theatrical gangster, all menace and malevolence, and he has our complete attention whenever he's on screen. But as proficient as the work is, it's a performance in a vacuum, so apart from the rest of the film that it can't enlarge or feed it the way great performances classically do.
Facing even bigger problems is DiCaprio, who is simply miscast as an ace street fighter and all-around murderous type. Taking on a role that goes against his strengths (shown to good advantage in the forthcoming "Catch Me If You Can"), the strongest attitude DiCaprio can manage is the petulance of a sullen choir boy sulking because he's been caught filching the Communion wine. No amount of intense training in authentic combat techniques can turn him into a plausible rival for Bill the Butcher, and the film suffers as a result.
That casting lapse also hamstrings "Gang's" grandiose attempts to turn Amsterdam into something of a political leader as it sets this personal rivalry against the backdrop of the societal discontent that led to the Civil War draft riots of 1863. For "Gangs" does have a lust for larger themes, a desperate desire to be seen as saying something profound about the nature of the American experience and be what Scorsese has called "a template for what's going on today."
But using Amsterdam Vallon as a poster boy for multicultural democracy, a kind of early Tom Joad fighting for a more just and equal America, is way off the mark. You don't need to carry a torch for Henry Fonda to see that there's no way this kind of twerp can be a prototype of anything.
Because nothing feels at stake in this kind of disconnected filmmaking, a great deal of what "Gangs of New York" attempts comes off as disjointed and beside the point. "Gangs" does not, for instance, lack for local color, but instead of enriching the film, undoubtedly authentic folk -- bare-knuckle fighters, bearded cross-dressers, opium smokers and unclothed prostitutes -- turn the final product into a cluttered muddle, an overstuffed trunk of movie flotsam thrown together and packed in haste.
The film's supporting cast of real people -- hey, there's Horace Greeley, and isn't that P.T. Barnum and, look, it's Boss Tweed talking about his soon-to-be-infamous courthouse -- come off as window dressing, even when, as with Jim Broadbent as Tweed, the acting is expert. "Gangs'" voice-over describing mid-19th century New York as "a furnace where a city someday might be forged" sounds forced. Even the film's closing song by U2 plays as lugubrious as its "The Hands That Built Ameria" title would have you fear.
The virtues of "Gangs," a failed film but not a fiasco, are the virtues of a pageant, not a drama. Unable to make his personal obsessions compelling despite his unquestioned filmmaking skill, director Scorsese and his team have created a heavy-footed golem of a motion picture, hard to ignore as it throws its weight around but fatally lacking in anything resembling soul.
'Gangs of New York'
MPAA rating: R, for intense violence, sexuality/nudity and language.
Times guidelines: Brutal violence throughout and racist language.
Leonardo DiCaprio ... Amsterdam Vallon
Daniel Day-Lewis... Bill the Butcher
Cameron Diaz ... Jenny Everdeane
Liam Neeson ... Priest Vallon
Jim Broadbent ... William "Boss" Tweed
Brendan Gleeson ... Monk McGinn
John C. Reilly ... Happy Jack
Henry Thomas ... Johnny
An Alberto Grimaldi production, released by Miramax Films. Director Martin Scorsese. Producers Alberto Grimaldi, Harvey Weinstein. Executive producers Michael Hausman, Maurizio Grimaldi. Screenplay Jay Cocks and Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan. Story Jay Cocks. Cinematographer Michael Ballhaus. Editor Thelma Schoonmaker. Costumes Sandy Powell. Music Howard Shore. Production design Dante Ferretti. Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.