Scorsese’s back on top

Henry Thomas, left, reprises the role of Fagin in the remake of <i>Oliver</i>.

Henry Thomas, left, reprises the role of Fagin in the remake of Oliver.

Rated 5.0

For some Scorsese fans, it has felt like more than 12 years since Goodfellas. Since Goodfellas, his films have ranged from quite good (Age of Innocence) to pretty bad (Casino). One could make the argument that Casino felt like more of a Scorsese parody than a Scorsese film.

In 2002, it’s nice to see that one of the world’s greatest directors has lost none of his edge. Gangs of New York is a triumph for Scorsese. Not as perfect as Goodfellas or Taxi Driver, but, certainly better than any of his films since 1990, it’s a grand, sweeping film with tremendous performances at its center.

Daniel Day-Lewis’ sinister turn as Bill the Butcher in Gangs could be the best performance in a Scorsese film since DeNiro’s turn as Jake LaMotta in 1980’s Raging Bull. That makes Bill a pretty amazing character; Day-Lewis, who hasn’t acted in over five years, makes him a full-bodied, almost sympathetic beast.

The film opens in New York City in 1846, with Irish immigrants about to war with a group who proclaim themselves “Nativists,” led by the psychotic Bill. The opening battle says it all: huge in scope, very bloody and set to modern music, a sly touch by Scorsese. After the battle takes the life of someone special to a young boy named Amsterdam, the film jumps ahead to a grown Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio) preparing for revenge.

Scorsese and company, including cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas, Age of Innocence) and editor Thelma Schoonmaker, has created a grandiose film rivaled only by Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers on this year’s Epic Scale. The production design is extraordinary, and the wonderful tracking shots are vintage Scorsese. In many ways, this is one of the director’s greatest achievements.

No doubt, Mr. DiCaprio will take some unfair critical hits for his performance as Amsterdam. While he’s supposed to be the film’s protagonist, his characterization results in a rather unlikable guy, something that I found totally appropriate. Amsterdam is flawed, rather lacking in morals and bitter to the point of perpetual scowling. As he joins Bill’s gang, his true identity unknown, it is actually Bill who appears the most sympathetic. DiCaprio does a great job of creating a hero we have a hard time rooting for.

As a side note, I’m a little sick of all this Leo bashing. DiCaprio is one of the greatest actors of his generation. Scorsese is no slouch, and he’s signed on to direct DiCaprio again in Howard Hughes’ The Aviator. If that’s not validation of the actor’s talent, I don’t know what is.

As evinced with films like Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Raging Bull, Scorsese portrays ambiguous characters, characters that are sometimes monstrous and sometimes capable of garnering as much sympathy as hatred. There are moments when Day-Lewis’ Bill the Butcher appears to be a pretty decent guy, even if he is about to bury a cleaver in someone’s back. This creates some confusion and induces feelings of being emotionally tossed about, a Scorsese tradition.

Some of the set pieces and sequences in this film are among the best Scorsese has ever accomplished. His rendering of the Draft Riot, which concludes the film, is as heartbreaking as it is visually astounding. A sequence in which Bill taunts Amsterdam’s love interest (Cameron Diaz) during a knife throwing performance is an absolute knockout.

Not only is Gangs of New York one of the year’s best, it’s Scorsese’s best picture since Goodfellas. He still has no Oscar, and the violence and brutality in this film are the sort of stuff that usually makes Academy voters bristle. Even so, I expect to see him, and Day-Lewis, contending for honors next March.