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Heroes of the Zeroes: Gangs of New York

by on April 25, 2010
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Heroes of the Zeroes is Nick Rogers’ daily, alphabetical look back at the 365 best films of 2000-2009.

“Gangs of New York”
Rated R

Martin Scorsese’s true masterpiece from the Zeroes? Not “The Aviator.” Not “The Departed,” either, commendable only for finally, belatedly bringing Scorsese an Oscar. No, 2002’s “Gangs of New York” is the film Scorsese was born to make.

This is an operatic look at the birth of America’s violent subculture that has, for years, fascinated and fueled U.S. society and the cinematic works of Scorsese. It is, in a way, the roots of the family tree for “Taxi Driver” and “Goodfellas.” Inked with violently shed blood, that lineage proves wholly riveting.

Most Scorsese films boast one memorable setpiece, but “Gangs” has several. None, though, tops the marvelous prologue, which propels the film’s revenge plot — as a young man (Leonardo DiCaprio) teams with a comely pickpocket (Cameron Diaz) to exact revenge against Bill “The Butcher” (Daniel Day Lewis), who killed his father.

There is a dynamic, practical-set visual acuity in the labyrinthine 19th-century maze of back alleys, shanties, underground tunnels and rickety buildings. It’s like watching America’s engine room churning.

Day Lewis’s performance is a triumph of face-altering makeup, body language, impeccable accentuation and resonantly evil convictions. He’s both a completely frightening villain and a sympathetic king scrambling to keep his kingdom.

In this eye-blink of history, the country’s scars of racism and pride as a nation formed in tandem. Scorsese clearly loves his city and country, but he tempers that affection here by questioning not only the Big Apple’s progress, but our country’s.