On February 6, 1846, at Paradise Square in Lower Manhattan's Five Points, a territorial battle of hand-to-hand combat between Bill "the Butcher" Cutting's U.S.-born nativist gang, the Natives, and "Priest" Vallon's Irish Catholic immigrant gang, the Dead Rabbits, concludes when Cutting kills Vallon, witnessed by Vallon's young son, Amsterdam. Cutting declares the Dead Rabbits outlawed but orders that Vallon's body be buried with honor. Amsterdam seizes the knife used to kill his father, races off, and buries it along with a medal his father gave him. He is later raised at Hellgate orphanage.
In late 1862, an adult Amsterdam Vallon returns to Five Points and reunites with an old friend, Johnny Sirocco, who reintroduces Amsterdam anonymously to Cutting. Amsterdam finds many of the former Dead Rabbits are now loyal to Cutting, including "Happy Jack" Mulraney, who has become a corrupt police officer, as well as the racist McGloin. Amsterdam works his way into Cutting's inner circle, and learns that, each year, Cutting celebrates the anniversary of his victory over the Dead Rabbits. Amsterdam plans to avenge his father by killing Cutting during that year's ceremony. Amsterdam becomes more deeply involved with Tammany Hall, the twisted political empire of Boss Tweed, who is heavily manipulated by Cutting.
Soon after Amsterdam and Johnny meet up, they run into Jenny Everdeane, a successful and discreet pickpocket and grifter whom Johnny is clearly enamored of. Jenny later steals the medal that Amsterdam's father had given him long ago. Amsterdam follows Jenny, confronts her, and retrieves his medal. He is clearly attracted to Jenny as well. His sexual interest in her is dampened, however, once he learns she was Cutting's ward and still enjoys his affections.
During a theatrical performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Amsterdam thwarts an assassination attempt on Cutting that leaves the latter wounded. Both retire to a brothel, where Jenny nurses Cutting. Amsterdam and Jenny argue and then make love. Later that night, Amsterdam wakes to find Cutting sitting by him, draped in a tattered American flag. Cutting reminisces of how Priest Vallon was the last respectable enemy he ever fought; Vallon even once beat Cutting soundly, letting him live in shame rather than killing him. Cutting now credits the incident with giving him the strength of will to come back strong, and implies that Amsterdam is like the son he never had. Soon after, Johnny, jealous of Jenny and Amsterdam's relationship, exposes Amsterdam's true identity as Vallon's son to Cutting. During a knife-throwing act on the night of the ceremony, Cutting consequently baits Amsterdam by mildly wounding Jenny. Amsterdam hurls a knife at Cutting, which the latter deflects and counters with a knife throw of his own, hitting Amsterdam square in the abdomen, then beating Amsterdam into unconsciousness. Cutting then declares he will let Amsterdam live as a "freak," and burns a hot knife blade into Amsterdam's cheek.
Afterwards, in hiding, Jenny nurses Amsterdam back to health, and implores him to leave New York for California with her. They are visited by Walter "Monk" McGinn, who was a mercenary for Vallon in the Five Points battle. Monk gives Amsterdam an old token of his father, inspiring Amsterdam to rise again. Amsterdam places a dead rabbit on a fence in Paradise Square as a threatening sign for Cutting, who demands that the corrupt Happy Jack find Amsterdam. Happy Jack, however, is soon outmaneuvered by Amsterdam, who strangles him and hangs his body in the Square. In retaliation, Cutting beats Johnny, runs him through with an iron pike, and likewise hangs him in the Square; Amsterdam is forced to perform a mercy killing.
Tweed, unhappy with Cutting's methods, approaches Amsterdam with a plan to neutralize Cutting: Tweed will back the candidacy of "Monk" McGinn for local sheriff in return for the Irish vote. On election day, both Cutting and Amsterdam's sides use voter fraud and violent coercion to get citizens to vote, resulting in an impossible landslide victory for Monk. Cutting responds by murdering Monk publicly in cold blood. During Monk's funeral, Amsterdam challenges Cutting to a traditional gang fight, which Cutting accepts. Jenny books passage for California, believing Amsterdam will soon die.
The New York City draft riots break out, and many upper-class citizens and African-Americans are attacked by the rioters. Union soldiers enter the city to put down the riots. As the gangs meet, they are hit by cannon fire from naval ships in the harbor; most of the gang members are killed or dispersed. An enormous cloud of dust and debris covers the area, allowing Cutting to strike Amsterdam, though the two are thrown to the ground by another shell blast. When the smoke clears, Cutting discovers he has been hit by a piece of shrapnel, and says, "Thank God, I die a true American." Amsterdam passionately stabs Cutting to death, their hands locked together.
Cutting is buried in Brooklyn next to Priest Vallon's grave, which Amsterdam and Jenny visit before they leave together. Amsterdam narrates that New York would be rebuilt, but they are no longer remembered, as if "we were never here". The scene then shifts, in a series of dissolves, as modern New York City is built, from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Empire State Building to the World Trade Center, while the graves of Cutting and Vallon gradually become overgrown.
- Leonardo DiCaprio as Amsterdam Vallon
- Daniel Day-Lewis as William Poole
- Cameron Diaz as Jenny Everdeane
- Liam Neeson as "Priest" Vallon
- Jim Broadbent as William M. Tweed
- Henry Thomas as Johnny Sirocco
- Brendan Gleeson as Walter "Monk" McGinn
- Gary Lewis as McGloin
- John C. Reilly as Happy Jack Mulraney
- Stephen Graham as Shang
- Lawrence Gilliard, Jr. as Jimmy Spoils
- Eddie Marsan as Killoran
- Alec McCowen as Reverend Raleigh
- David Hemmings as John F. Schermerhorn
- Cara Seymour as Hell-Cat Maggie
- Roger Ashton-Griffiths as P.T. Barnum
- Barbara Bouchet as Mrs. Schermerhorn
- Michael Byrne as Horace Greeley
- John Sessions as Harry Watkins
- Richard Graham as Harvey-Card Player
- Giovanni Lombardo Radice as Mr. Legree
- Martin Sherman as Guy (uncredited)
Reviews of the eventual release in 2002 were generally positive, with Daniel Day-Lewis' performance receiving the most praise by critics—the review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes reporting 75% of the 202 reviews that they tallied were favorable. The RT Critical Consensus reads, "Though flawed, the sprawling, messy Gangs of New York is redeemed by impressive production design and Day-Lewis's electrifying performance."
The review aggregate website Metacritic awarded Gangs of New York a Metascore of 72, indicating generally favorable reviews.
Roger Ebert praised the film, but believed it fell short of Scorsese's best work, while Richard Roeper called it a "masterpiece" and declared it a leading contender for Academy Award for Best Picture|Best Picture.
Paul Clinton of CNN called the film "a grand American epic."
In Variety, Todd McCarthy wrote that the film "falls somewhat short of great film status, but is still a richly impressive and densely realized work that bracingly opens the eye and mind to untaught aspects of American history." McCarthy singled out what he considered the meticulous attention to historical detail and production design for particular praise.
Some critics, disappointed with the film, complained that it fell well short of the hyperbole surrounding it, that it tried to tackle too many themes without saying anything unique about them, and that the overall story was weak.
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