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The Gang's all here --- let the Oscar race begin


Gangs of New York, the year's most eagerly anticipated film (aside from the one following this review), plays like a who's who of AWOL Hollywood heavyweights. Director Martin Scorsese hasn't been seen in theaters since Kundun in 1997 (I like to pretend Bringing Out the Dead never happened). Ditto for stars Daniel Day-Lewis (1997's The Boxer) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, in 1997 --- I often pretend The Beach never happened either), who always seem to be Academy Award contenders, despite appearing about as frequently as Halley's Comet.

            Speaking of Titanic, I don't think Gangs is going to achieve the same level of success, either financially or Oscarly, though I do think the two films lend themselves to comparison, from their painstaking attention to detail to their dexterous ability to combine action and romance (the latter being the Achilles' heels for both, however). Oh, and they're very similar in terms of how much I liked them, which is a whole lot.

            Gangs, which started filming way back in the spring of 2000, opens in an area of 1846 Manhattan's Lower East side called Five Points. The first scene depicts a father shaving and teaching his young son about knives and St. Michael before the duo lead dozens of people through what appears to be the bowels of the Earth, to a tune you won't easily forget, until they emerge into the daylight and the center of town. They're a scary-looking bunch with scary-looking weapons, but no more frightening than their counterparts, who materialize from the other side of the town square and take up their defensive positions. A few words are exchanged, and then the two sides go at it Braveheart-style until the snow is good and pink.

            The father is Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), the leader of the Irish immigrant gang Dead Rabbits, and during combat he suffers a fatal wound from the rival gang leader. The Natives, a group of longtime Americans led by William Cutting (Day-Lewis), win the battle and take control of Five Points. Vallon's son, who witnessed the gutting of his father, is shipped off to an orphanage, but returns 16 years later (as DiCaprio) with revenge on his mind, especially when he learns that the glass-eyed Cutting (a.k.a. Bill the Butcher) celebrates the anniversary of Priest Vallon's death with a big party. Now calling himself Amsterdam, DiCaprio's narration (one of the film's weaker points) explains the whole keep-your-friends-close-but-keep-your-enemies-closer notion as he eventually becomes Cutting's right-hand man.

            Meanwhile, there has to be some romance so the teenage girls pony up their cash. And, of course, the woman in question (Cameron Diaz) has to be involved with both men in some way, so there can be even more conflict between the two of them. As in Titanic --- more so here, actually --- the lovey-dovey stuff threatens to bring Gangs to a screeching halt, but Scorsese never gets quite as carried away as James Cameron did (and comparing the DiCaprio-Winslet chemistry to the DiCaprio-Diaz chemistry isn't at all fair).

            Meanwhile, chemistry and conflict all take a backseat to the film's depiction of New York itself. Scorsese doesn't Lucas it up and create his surroundings digitally --- everything you see was built by hand, right down to the real cobblestone streets. Gangs, inspired by Herbert Asbury's 1928 non-fiction book of the same name, has the history down cold as it neatly folds subplots involving the Irish potato famine, the Civil War, and the Draft Riots into its deceptively complex story.

            There's only one question when it comes to Gangs' acting: Which Oscar is Daniel Day-Lewis going to win --- Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor? Once the studio decides which category they're going to push him in, AMPAS may as well just mail him the trophy. Day-Lewis gets completely lost in his role in a way I'm not sure I've ever seen before. Watching him act his ass off is simultaneously thrilling and depressing as hell, since it may be years before we see him on screen again. He's good enough to make everyone else in the film look like Madonna. Here's to hoping he makes another film again in the immediate future, and to hoping Scorsese's original cut (three-plus hours) will be on the DVD.

            Together with a crack team of behind-the-scenes talent, Scorsese has managed to construct a bustling city built on all manner of illegal activity, which is spearheaded by Cutting and his Tammany Hall crony William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent). Do yourself a favor and hunt down Ric Burns' amazing New York: A Documentary Film to brush up on your history --- it'll make Gangs that much more enjoyable. Plus, you might need it: This is the first major film to portray Civil War-era New York, so those of us younger than 160 probably don't know much about it.

            In some ways, The Two Towers is better than The Fellowship of the Ring. And in some ways, it's a little bit worse. The point is, it's not the exact same movie we saw in theaters last year --- like, say, the first two Harry Potter films. For that reason alone, Towers deserves kudos. But, of course, there are plenty of other reasons to heap massive amounts of praise upon it.

            Towers picks up right where Ring left off (and with absolutely no recap, so don't bother going if you haven't seen the first flick, or at least read the book), with the Fellowship splintered into three groups headed in different directions. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) continue on their way to destroy the all-powerful ring, while Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom), and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) try to track down the frightening Uruk-hai warriors who have kidnapped Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd).

            The character we all thought died in Ring --- Gandalf (Ian McKellen) --- kicks off Towers, as screenwriter-director Peter Jackson shows the wizard battling that crazy fire monster as they fall into a bottomless abyss. It's wicked cool, but we all know Gandalf survived, because he's in Towers' trailer (which is, like, not wicked cool at all). Anyway, the three separate factions of the Fellowship proceed on their merry way, encountering new characters and new (but still dire) situations involving more close calls, more bad injuries, and more characters returning from the dead.

            The main problem I had with Towers (other than the evil not being nearly as menacing this time around --- Christopher Lee's Saruman and that flaming vagina thing remain tucked inside the two titular towers and, mostly, out of both sight and mind) is, well, downright confusion. I ain't the smartest guy in the world, but I'm no dummy, either. I haven't read the books, and I found it very difficult to keep track of where everyone was, not to mention where they were headed. In Ring, the Fellowship went from Point A to Point B as a group; that's easy. But they're all over the place this time. I know there's an atlas of Middle-Earth in the books --- maybe they should hand out maps on the way into the theater, or put one of those translucent diagrams in the corner of the screen, like a videogame. Of course, it doesn't help that the locations all have nutty names, like Rohan, Mordor, and Gondor (and don't get me started on the characters: We've got Saruman and Sauron, Éowyn and Éomer, Arwen and Morwen, Boromir and Faramir).

            I should also mention I liked Ring a lot better the second and third times I saw it, and I anticipate my experience with Towers will probably be the same. Of course, anyone's potential confusion will likely be forgotten when it comes time for the Battle of Helm's Deep, which might be the most amazing, large-scale undertaking I've ever seen on the screen. Those Uruk-hai chaps are frightening enough when there are just a handful of them, but 10,000-plus taking to the Deep in one hell of a battle scene left my mouth agape and my palms sweaty. As impressive and memorable as it was, however, the clash still takes a backseat to the emergence of Gollum (Andy Serkis) as a major character in the film. The CG critter, who blows away that Dobby thing from Harry Potter, gets more screen time and ends up becoming the most complex character in Towers.

            There's still more --- way more than I can even get into here --- happening in Towers. All of the things you dug from the first film are back and, generally, bigger and better. There's more of an emphasis on the whole nature-versus-industry thing, and --- yes --- there are walking, talking trees. From what I understand, Towers strays from the book more often than Ring did (especially the premature ending), so hardcore fans might have something to gripe about. But in the grand scheme, Towers should be making them (and everyone else) squeal instead of sulk.

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