Martin Scorsese's epic film is set in 19th-century New York, a lawless place where gangs of recently arrived immigrants from Europe battle the "Nativists", who consider themselves true Americans. The bravura opening sees Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), leader of the Irish-American "Dead Rabbits" gang, prepare to take on the Nativists, led by Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis). At the end of the ferocious, no-holds barred fight, Vallon lies dead and his son Amsterdam is condemned to a grim orphanage.
He emerges in his early 20s (now played by Leonardo DiCaprio) intent on avenging his father's death. But friendless and without allies, the only way he can get close to Bill is to become a trusted member of his gang. Complications are provided by Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz), a skilled pickpocket who was Bill's lover but now becomes Amsterdam's, the growing conflict between the lawless gangs, the increasing gentrification of the city and the coming conscription of troops for the Civil War, bitterly resisted by all in the Five Points, the gangs' stronghold.
Pre-release talk was as much about the over-running budget, the "editing" by studio boss Harvey Weinstein to bring the film in at under three hours and the realism of the massively expensive set at Rome's Cinecitta as about the film, but on release, it was received with qualified praise.
Certainly the look is superb but both DiCaprio and Diaz's performances, which would normally be acclaimed, are over-shadowed by the Oscar-nominated Day-Lewis. After a self-imposed absence from the screen for five years, he portrays Bill as a complex man, capable of great cruelty and great tenderness, a man who isn't just a violent thug but a skilled manipulator of City Hall (epitomised by Jim Broadbent as the truly corrupt "Boss Tweed", a real-life figure).
Whenever Day-Lewis is on screen, the eye is automatically drawn to him rather than his two co-stars whose tender relationship would normally be the linchpin of any other film. But this is a minor quibble; Scorsese's re-telling of a hidden part of America's painful growing pains is spectacular and if there are a few longeurs, they are more than compensated for by the overall breadth and daring of the director's vision.