Leo DiCaprio will win no awards as the vengeful Irish orphan, Amsterdam, but he comports himself well enough to be taken seriously as an actor.
It's 1863 New York City, prior to Rudy Giuliani and well on its way to being anarchic and lawless beyond any modern imagining. The underworld is ruled by Billy the Butcher, played with cunning, humor, and ruthlessness by Daniel Day-Lewis in an Oscar-possible performance. Leo DiCaprio will win no awards as the vengeful Irish orphan, Amsterdam, but he comports himself well enough to be taken seriously as an actor.
The re-creation of 19th century New York at the Cinecitta Studios in Rome is filled with soot, clogged with humans, and choked with detritus to make it both ugly and fascinating. Director Martin Scorsese's seasoned hand takes a cue from Howard Hawks' "Searchers" by opening a door and letting the point of view camera marvel at the snow-flaked town to be irrevocably changed by the clash of Irish immigrants, led by DiCaprio's dad, Liam Neeson, with nativists, led by the wily Day-Lewis.
DiCaprio will try to avenge his dad's death, with the help of a resourceful and randy pickpocket, played with gusto and charm by Cameron Diaz. The revenge is the plot linchpin and its weakness, for it regularly telegraphs the next anti-climax and takes precious emphasis away from development of interesting characters like Day-Lewis, Diaz, and the talented Jim Broadbent as the infamous political sidewinder, Boss Tweed.
The rivalry leads to the worst riot in American history, the Draft Riots, a preeminent holocaust that destroyed much of Manhattan at the hands of mobs and navy guns, even the homes of prominent businessmen and publishers. Amid the carnage, made even fouler by The Butcher's surpassing ability to eviscerate pigs and men alike, there seems little hope, except for someday a century and an half later a mayor with guts and cold compassion. Until that time, that great city accepted its pickpockets, prostitutes, and politicos as part of its landscape, caught powerfully by the genius director of "Taxi Driver" and "Goodfellas" among other urban stories.
The film should be seen, all 168 minutes, if you care about the arc of this director, the history of New York, and the amazing gifts of Daniel Day-Lewis. Leo can wait.