WHAT I LIKED: Beyond the simple depiction of events that a documentary generally offers, what makes cinema engaging and transcendent is its development of characters, its building of atmosphere, and its ability to translate those things into real-world themes. Scorsese is a filmmaker who knows more about harnessing that power than almost anyone, but at the same time, he often enjoys indugling in the mechanics of worlds and realities too.
'Gangs of New York,' is the ultimate proof of that, as - much in the same vein as his 'Casino,' and 'Kundun,' - it plays out mostly like a decade-spanning, world-building documentary rather than an engaging drama. That's certainly captivating here, as it takes place at the heart of "the birth of America," during the civil war, where Irish immigrants found themselves in conflict with the native protestant crime families. The script follows a young Irish descendant (Leonardo DiCaprio) who watched his father die at the hands of "Bill the Butcher," William Poole (Daniel Day-Lewis) looking for revenge and to gain some sense of purpose back in New York.
He wanders through the streets commiting crimes and making connections to Poole all whilst waiting for his inevitable chance, and as he does so we're able to witness the political connections of the crime families, and countless everyday moments of frivolity and hardship that these influential people would have experienced. The brilliantly tangible world-building transports you masterfully to the madness and chaos of the time period, and the performances (particularly by Day-Lewis of course) all deliver the required conviction to sell the roles.
Within all of that though is one thing that brings the film towards the realms of the cinematic, and that's DiCaprio's central character. He's such an interesting and tortured soul with such bitter motivation, and that gets a reasonable (and increasing) level of development within all the other stuff. There's flashbacks to his father's murders, great moments of tension between he and the butcher, and the camera frequently zooms in on DiCaprio's brilliantly stoic, focused expression that speaks to the violent, supressed drive somewhere deep within him that we know is slowly and inevitably making its way out.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Ultimately, the majority of scenes are concerned more with world-building and simple storytelling above any of that character stuff, and though Scorsese does an incredibly immersive job, it means that the thought-provoking and engaging central character study takes a bit of a back seat at times.
VERDICT: 'Gangs of New York,' showcases Scorsese's nouse for world-building better than ever, though it does so somewhat at the expense of really getting under the skin of its fascinating central character.