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DWHH reviews Gangs of New York
by Dog with HUMAN HANDS

There may have been animals in this movie, but for the life of me I can't be bothered to remember. All I could think during that first scene was how grieviously misjudged we dogs are in a society that was founded by people like Bill The Butcher. But then the movie caught me in its grasp and didn't let go. Bill, played with mesmerizing aplomb by Daniel Day-Lewis, is the leader of the Native Americans (no relation to the Native Americans), a gang descended from New York's earliest white settlers. He and his gang are fighting for control of the Five Points district of Manhattan, and the first scene of the movie involves a sliceatious street meelee with Priest Vallon's Dead Rabbits gang (right! Dead rabbits. I liked that part...).

And what a celebration it was
Priest Vallon is portrayed by the formidable Liam Neeson, and he bites it in a big way, right in front of his son, at the HANDS of Butcher Bill, thereby disbanding the Dead Rabbits. The Native Americans win the day, and leave with the severed ears of their dead rivals, which are a form of currency in Native American bars (again, no relation).

What may be most remarkable about the first 20 minutes of this movie is not the sweeping but gloomy battle choreography, or the extended SteadiCam march through a cavernous warehouse, but the way in which Leonardo DiCaprio effortlessly embodies both his pre-adolescent and late-teen selves. He plays both roles, with only facial hair and a change of clothes to distinguish his twin incarnations. I hardly recognized him, and it's a testament to his skill as a screen actor, utilizing variations on the same constipated grimace to denote emotions such as fear, anger, blood-lust, and post-coital fear. His character's name is Amsterdam, and when he reappears with his peach fuzz a decade later, he has not forgotten Bill the Butcher, or the mission of vengeance which awaits him, and which will drive the movie for the next two hours and thirty minutes.

And so on and so forth. You know the plot. Amsterdam finds the Native Americans and sets about becoming one. Bill holds the dead Priest in the highest esteem, and still gushes about his valour on the battlefield, and this delays the inevitable confrontation by an hour or so. Amsterdam infiltrates the inner sanctum, becoming Bill's protegé, even shacking up with his former flame, Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). With Bill's blessing, of course. But this can't last, and then something happens and they must fight. But not without a bigger, bloodier fight, within a grander historical context. At the end one of them dies, and I'm pretty sure it's Butcher Bill.

Around the part where their friendship goes to shit, The Onion's Scott Tobias and I were seated together, and I couldn't help mooching a couple of swigs from his flask. So naturally I had to pop out for a slash, and I have a feeling I missed a really good scene. Bill the Butcher was clicking his glass eye with his knife, and it was about the coolest thing I've ever seen. Because, let's face it, anybody with a glass eye and an oatmeal spoon can do that, but when Daniel Day-Lewis does it, it redefines enigma. I can't say enough about his performance. Yes, it's over the top, but over the top in a glorious, life-affirming sort of way. It is for this performance that you should see the movie, and for which you should go to movies in the first place. His character's Christian name, by the way, is William Cutting (heh heh), and he has a wonderfully thick Sheriff Of John Wayne Gulch moustache, and speaks with a "Bronx accent" that's at once masterfully rich and masterfully absurd. To watch him fold his HANDS, nod his head and say "I don't give a tuppenny fuck about your moral conundrum, you meatheaded shit-sack" is to slumber with angels. Christ, I might have a thing for him...

Anyway, you can't review this movie without talking about his method actor's approach to shooting, which involved taking butcher lessons (try the yellow pages) and staying in character the entire time. Supposedly, he even insisted on sitting in a wheelchair between takes. Or maybe that was something else... I dunno, I get confused. Oh yeah, while I was outside... So I'm finishing up, and about to go back into the theater, when I come across Bob Saget talking on his cell phone in the alley. I was a big fan of Full House when I was six (dog years), so I wait politely while he finishes cussing out his agent and then we have this great conversation about the lengths that Marty had to go to to get this movie made. Did you know, for example, that he started working on funding and scripting almost three decades ago? Or that DDL was making shoes in Italy (I'll reserve my feelings on those contraptions for another time), and came out of retirement to make this thing? That's why they shot at Fellini's Cinécitta. Or maybe because the place had gone broke.

But who cares, it paid off, because the period sets (well, okay, it's pre-Civil War Manhattan, but on peyote) afford the viewer a point of interest in every corner of the frame. It's like being transported to another world, but one which supposedly stood three blocks from the site of my critics' screening. You look at the crazy sets and you can't believe they tore them down after the wrap party (which I hear was amazing). It's like a less-sucky Colonial Williamsburg, and I daydreamt the whole time about going (plenty of big spaces, lots of stuff to chase, good selection of bars). It's not Scorsese's best, but even Scorsese on a bad day is something special (excluding The Muse, of course, but then he only acted). Yes, it lacks the freight train momentum of his better work, and what I remember of the resolution seemed a little forced, but Marty ought to be proud of this film, and I hope he is.

Bill the Butcher might well go down in cinematic history. Suffice it to say that much of the time, he is the movie. He's the reason you will go to see it. But it's just a wonder to behold, even if all the pieces don't exactly add up. The production design is top-notch, from the ginormous sets to the eye-popping costumes (Bill's hip-riding yellow plaid pants are worth the price of admission). The acting is terrif, the music is grand but never garish, and the underlying theme of America's bloody past is hammered home with the skill of a craftsman, even if the movie itself needs to have its waist let out. My score? An enthusiastic A++.