Gangs of New York

dir. Scorsese

Opens Fri Dec 20

Various Theaters

After a decade of interesting departures and mild disappointments, there were whisperings that the long-dreamed project Gangs Of New York, about the struggle of rival Civil War-era clans for Bronx supremacy, would allow Martin Scorsese to tap back into the passion that fueled his early masterpieces. The opening set piece backs up these claims: a proto-apocalyptic vision of men scuttling out of the ground carrying the damnedest variety of pointed objects, waging war in a frozen wasteland. The carnage that occurs is of a scale the director has never attempted before, and leaves one gasping, ready for more. Unfortunately, what then emerges is a relatively standard (if exquisitely rendered) revenge drama, with Cameron Diaz as the victor and U2 over the credits.

As an orphaned Irishman driven for vengeance, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers a Method acted, closed-off performance (there's also the nagging fact that he looks downright beefy, for playing a street urchin raised on gruel). Daniel Day-Lewis, on the other hand, owns every frame he's featured in as the gleefully sadistic leader of the reining anti-immigrant gang. It's a showy, hambone part, replete with stovepipe hat and a Snidely Whiplash 'stache, and Day-Lewis makes the most of it.

As in his earlier The Age Of Innocence, Scorsese gets so obsessed with the (admittedly fascinating) minutia of the period, that he neglects to follow through on such things as character development and narrative. The backdrop soars, at the expense of the foreground. The awkward placement of needless flashbacks and voiceover narration suggests that this discord may be due more to studio-mandated jitters than anything else. (Apparently, a longer, more sure-footed cut exists.) The final result is a bet-hedging misstep of the sort that only a master filmmaker can make.

Make no mistake: As a museum piece of a fascinating period, Gangs is awe-inspiring, gargantuan, impeccable--the sort of epic where you just know that all of the extras are wearing painstakingly accurate undergarments. As a living, breathing entity, it leaves something to be desired.