In some ways, "Gangs of New York" is a departure for Martin Scorsese, with his biggest budget ever - nearly $100 million - and a story more sweeping than any he's told before.
In other ways, it's a natural extension of his longtime fascination with three subjects that have intrigued him throughout his career: crime, violence, and the intricate folkways of New York City, which he's explored in movies from "Mean Streets" and "Taxi Driver" to "GoodFellas" and "The Age of Innocence."
"Gangs" takes place mostly in the Five Points neighborhood of lower Manhattan, where bands of loosely organized thugs fought bloody turf battles during the Civil War era.
The story focuses on two men. One is Bill "The Butcher" Cutting, who leads a "native American" mob aimed at barricading New York against throngs of immigrants driven out of Ireland by famine. The other is Amsterdam Vallon, a streetwise Irish-American youth whose father was slain by Cutting when Amsterdam was a child. Returning to the Five Points after years in an upstate reform school, he becomes Bill's protégé and waits for the right moment to avenge his dad's awful death.
As moviemaking craft, "Gangs" is a vivid accomplishment, recreating a tumultuous period in impeccable detail. From the streets and tenements of the Lower East Side to the uptown neighborhoods where bloody antidraft riots break out near the end of the picture, every detail has the ring of historical and political authenticity.
The acting is equally strong. Oscar handicappers are already buzzing about Daniel Day-Lewis's high-octane portrayal of Bill, although I was struck by the many similarities between his mannerisms and the ones Robert De Niro has perfected in his Scorsese collaborations. Leonardo DiCaprio is perfectly cast as Amsterdam, and Cameron Diaz projects amazing energy as pickpocket Jenny Everdeane, the only strong woman character in this male-dominated melodrama.
On deeper levels, though, "Gangs" fails to achieve the psychological resonance that raises Scorsese's best pictures far above mere technical excellence. Bill and Amsterdam are tantalizing characters who do all kinds of dramatic things, but the movie doesn't probe deeply enough into their secret selves to find the underlying motivations for their sometimes inhuman behaviors.
Scorsese films like "Taxi Driver" and "Raging Bull" are less about actions and events than the recesses of their characters' intensely flawed minds and souls. "Gangs" substitutes breadth for depth, filling the screen with bravura acting and explosive spectacle but rarely reaching the profundity of Scorsese's most penetrating works.
• Rated R; contains a great deal of highly explicit violence.