Arguably the greatest living American filmmaker, Martin Scorsese makes a big, bloody return to the forefront of the film world with his part epic, part history lesson, “Gangs of New York.” Since 1995’s “Casino,” Scorsese has shied away from the limelight, opting instead for smaller and more personal fare like his documentary on Italian cinema, “Mio viaggio in Italia.” His Dalai Lama bio “Kundun” and surreal Nicolas Cage paramedic adventure “Bringing Out the Dead,” while two of Scorsese’s best departures and both visually stunning in their own very different ways, never received wide attention, especially for a director so commonly hailed and in the spotlight.

Scorsese recruits a pair of actors also recently missing-in-action, Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis. Together, with an almost unlimited Miramax budget of the likes Scorsese has never before seen, they brilliantly, and violently, bring to life an upsetting period of New York – and American – history centered on a story of a young man’s vengeance in the name of his father.

The father, Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), immediately sets the gory example for his young son when he leads his Dead Rabbits gang of Irish immigrants against the so-called Natives who run the Lower-Manhattan area of the Five Points. Set against the wintry white snow covering the neighborhood’s central Paradise Square, the xenophobic battle unleashes spectacularly realistic choreographed fighting while the combatants’ red blood seeps into the land they fight over. Young Amsterdam Vallon watches on from a front-row seat as the old-fashioned brawl comes to a sudden end thanks to the knives of William Cutting, also known as Bill the Butcher, when they enter the sides of Amsterdam’s valiant father.

Daniel Day-Lewis emerges from his semi-retirement to assume Bill’s butcher apron and the wonderful slang-ridden dramatics that come out of his mouth. We can only thank Robert DeNiro for turning down the role; Day-Lewis is the greatest actor of his generation and this, is his ultimate scene-stealing role. Balancing scenes of Vaudevillian over-the-top showmanship with tender moments of father-son advice, Day-Lewis makes the menacing figure an intriguing cross of desperate humanity and image conscious cartoon. With a script credited to three Oscar nominated writers, somehow Bill seems to be given all the best dialogue, and its to the delight and horror of the audience.

Maneuvering his way into the role of Bill’s loyal up-and-coming associate is Amsterdam (DiCaprio), now 16 years older and out of the reform school where he spent his childhood. Even with revenge on his mind, the Bill/Amsterdam relationship never feels so black and white. Bill is obviously a racist, no-good cheat, with his knife making its way from his glass eye to the hand of a poker compatriot to the back of a newly elected Irish sheriff, but he also shows Amsterdam his heritage-proud heart, and takes the boy in.

DiCaprio’s part is not awarded the spectacle of performace so generously devoted to Day-Lewis, instead asked to quietly go about his business of resurrecting the name of the Dead Rabbits while holding a slight Irish accent. In a performance not so allowably entertaining as his portrayal of Frank Abagnale (“Catch Me If You Can”), DiCaprio still holds his own amongst a series of great actors, silently brooding over his father’s loss while avoiding possible complications like friends (Henry Thomas) and lovers (Cameron Diaz).

Diaz delivers another steady performance as the pickpocket Jenny, but never overcomes a role that feels like another love-interest throwaway. Indebted to Bill but in love with Amsterdam, Jenny barely creates a persona of her own. The remaining supporting cast excels in roles too often shortchanged in screen-time: Jim Broadbent enthusiastically rants and lies as the corrupt Tammany Hall politician “Boss” Tweed while John C. Reilly appears way too briefly as loyal Dead Rabbit turned Native-helping cop Happy Jack.

Set during the onset of the Civil War, Scorsese’s real intention with “Gangs” is to show the construction of the modern day New York thanks to the hot blooded, riotous tempers of the Lincoln-hating 19th century lower class. Saving his trump card for the third act, the seemingly straight man vs. man story brilliantly erupts in its final 20 minutes.

A history lesson sinceringly well-taught from the most outspoken lover of New York City, the terrible memories of the Civil War draft riots will now forever be tied to one of the most memorable characters in recent cinema. Keyser Soze meet Bill the Butcher, another unforgettable character.

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