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Culture: Review - Violent core of the Big Apple; Mike Davies reviews this week's new cinema releases.

Byline: Mike Davies

GANGS OF NEW YORK CERT 15 168MINS

Like Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese has had a lifetime love affair with New York. With the obvious exception of The Last Temptation of Christ, all of his greatest films have been set there, examining facets of New York life, New York society and the New York personality.

Unlike Woody, however, Scorsese has never seen his city through rose tinted spectacles. It may be the most vibrant, most individual metropolis in America, but he's well aware that it can also be one of the most violent, most intimidating and most destructive.

Whether it be the psychosis it induces in Taxi Driver, the mob allure in Goodfellas, the paranoia of After Hours or even the ruthlessness of society manners in The Age of Innocence, Scorsese has been drawn to the both emotional and physical violence upon which New York - and indeed American society - has been built.

Now, three decades after first being blown away by reading Gangs of New York - Herbert Asbury's 1928 cult book about old New York and America's wild beginnings - and following two years of frustrations, delays and struggles, he has finally realised his ambition to bring it to the screen and return to the original mean streets upon which the Big Apple took root.

Although filmed almost entirely on a lot at Rome's Cinecitta studios the streets in question are those, now long buried, that once formed the intersection of Manhattan's Lower East Side known as the Five Points.

This, according to Asbury was the Cradle of the Gangs, where such colourfully named proto-mobs as the Shirt Tails, the Bowery Boys and the Plug Uglies vied for control. As written by the heavyweight trio of Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, Kenneth Lonergan, fact and fiction, real and invented characters, all blur together to become romance and myth as the film opens with a 15-minute setpiece gang fight between the Americanborn Nativists (led by William Cutting, aka 'Bill the Butcher' - Daniel Day-Lewis in his first film in five years) and the Dead Rabbits (Irish Catholic immigrants led by Priest Vallon - Liam Neeson).

Emerging from their catacombs, Vallon's followers face down Cutting's in the crisp snow.

There is a moment's silence then bloody slaughter erupts as cudgels, knives, axes (no guns, this is, after all, a battle of honour) hack, smash and crush, turning the ground pink with blood. At the climax, Vallon is felled by Cutting, witnessed by the dead man's young son.

Sixteen tough years of life in Hellgate House of Reform later, the boy, now calling himself Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), returns to recover the knife that killed his father (and which has curiously managed to wrap itself in a rag while buried in its hiding place) and to take vengeance on his murderer.

Sporting tweedy waistcoat, chequered trousers, his previous leather aviator hat exchanged for a stovepipe and looking like Willy Wonka as conceived by Dr Seuss, Bill the Butcher is now top dog hereabouts - the glass-eyed overlord of the racketeering, prostitution, gambling, drugs and murder that is the area's stock in trade. As he says: 'each of the Five Points is a finger, and when I close my hand, it becomes a fist.'

A man of influence and power, his muscle is courted by (historically real) Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), the corrupt politician with designs on ruling the city.

Introduced into the gang by best friend and sole confidante Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), Amsterdam bides his time as he rises through the ranks, saving Bill from a bullet to become his protg and surrogate son as, using a pig carcass, Cutting teaches him the butchery business (of both man and beast) and confides that the annual celebration to mark the triumph over Vallon is truly in honour of the only one of his victims he ever respected.

By now you can see we're into complex emotional and psychological territory, compounded further when Amsterdam takes up with Bill's sometime lover and pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz). A Judas-like betrayal reveals his true identity.

Following the inevitable brutal expulsion and slow recuperation (one might ponder how having been branded on his cheek with a hot blade the result heals to look like a slight shaving nick) Amsterdam becomes the immigrants' leader.

New alliances are forged between himself and Tweed, looking to tap the Irish vote, with Vallon's old friend (Brendan Gleeson)put forward to run opposite Bill for sheriff. All this takes place against a backdrop of the American Civil War and growing resentment in the North towards both it, the terrible body count (mostly of immigrants too poor to buy themselves out of conscription) and slave-loving Abraham Lincoln - culminating in the twin chaos of the (real) 1863 Draft Riots as blacks are lynched and the rich burned out and the (fictional) final showdown between Bill's Nativists and Amsterdam's resurrected Dead Rabbits.

It's filmmaking on an ambitiously-grand scale that superbly evokes the period as rival fire brigades and police forces fight in the streets while striking resonances with America's turbulent political history - the Draft Riots as Union soldiers fire indiscriminately into the crowds clearly evoking the Vietnam protests while Tweed's declaration that 'the ballots don't make the votes. The counters make the votes' obviously calls to mind Bush's manipulated ascendancy to President.

But trimmed back from a reported 195 minutes (rumour saying the extreme violence on display is actually toned down) and with what feels like a rushed climax, it's not long enough to embrace all its aspirations without lurches in both the narrative and the emotional panorama.

Despite an Irish brogue as free-ranging as it was in Titanic (the clothes from which he seems to be still wearing when we first meet him) and a somewhat thinly realised character, DiCaprio works hard to imbue Amsterdam with intensity. Whenever he shares scenes with an ill-cast and too contemporary Diaz, he commands the screen, whenever he's paired with Day-Lewis, whose larger than life performance and thick Noo Yoik accent is far more attuned to Scorsese's scale, he might as well be part of the scenery.

But whatever quibbles there may be (that voice-over a big one), while it may fall short of epic masterpiece status there's no denying the compelling visceral power of the often terrifying set pieces, the breathtaking cinematic awesomeness of its dazzling techniques and visuals Scorsese has passionately brought to bear on his personal Birth of a Nation. Roll on the director's cut. THE TUXEDO CERT 12A 98MINS The suit may be slick, but it's what's inside it that's important, debonair secret agent Clarke Devlin (Jason Isaacs) tells his new driver, former cabbie Jimmy Tong (Jackie Chan).

A pity director Kevin Donovan didn't pay heed. As Bond-spoofing wardrobes go, this certainly looks well-tailored, but inspect the label closer and you find it's just a cheap off-the-peg rental stitched from inferior Inspector Gadget material. No wonder Jackie (or should that be Jacket?) never looks comfortable wearing it.

The suit in question is in fact a high-tech weapon that gives the wearer all manner ofpowers and gadgets, enabling them to perform incredible feats, including dancing - and inexplicably singing - like James Brown. Always useful when you've just knocked out the Godfather of Soul seconds before his show.

Naturally, when Devlin's incapacitated (and oh how you'll envy Isaacs's coma) it falls to mild-mannered Jimmy to try it on for size and find himself mistaken for his boss by petulant double-breasted rookie spy Del Blaine (Jennifer Love Hewitt) as they attempt to foil a plot by bottled-water mogul Diedrich Banning (Ritchie Coster) to poison the world's water supply.

All of which is just an excuse for a bunch of agile knockabout stunts. Fair enough, that's what Chan does. Except here he doesn't. Or rather he does but with the assistance of wire work and CGI. Which isn't what a Jackie Chan movie is about.

To his credit, he still gives it the customary goofball twinkle but really anyone could have played the role and by the time you've got to the variation on the 'oops vicar I've lost my trousers' routine with some bimbo in her underwear, you suspect he might be wishing anyone else had.

An opening shot of a deer urinating isn't a good omen, and between Donovan's inept direction and a shrilly charmless performance from Hewitt that actually makes you pine for Chris Tucker, the movie unravels at the seams at an alarming rate with everyone desperately mugging to try and hold the stitches together.

But frantic and funny are not the same thing, and speeding up the film merely underlines the fact. Decidedly not dressed to thrill. HH

CAPTION(S):

There is a moment's silence then bloody slaughter erupts as cudgels, knives, axes (no guns, this is, after all, a battle of honour) hack, smash and crush, turning the ground pink with blood; Top and bottom right, Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the brilliant and violent Gangs of New York; right, Jackie Chan in the disappointing The Tuxedo
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Jan 10, 2003
Words:1499
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