While it seems unlikely that anyone will ever place Martin Scorsese's 2002 film Gangs of New York on the same level as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, it's still better than countless movies I saw not only that year, but in the years since. This is mostly thanks to a classic performance from Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays a terrifying gang lord named Bill "The Butcher" Cutting. Day-Lewis is mesmerizing as the always unpredictable psychopath with a savage streak a mile wide. Cutting leads one gang in New York's Five Points district -- a group of native born Americans opposed to the waves of immigrants coming into the city. In one of the film's many brutal scenes, his gang takes on Irish group led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) in mortal combat. When Vallon falls to Cutting's blade, his son (who will be portrayed by Leo DiCaprio for the rest of the film) sees it all and vows to get revenge.
This massive showdown really serves to highlight everything I love about Gangs of New York. It's as vicious as the large-scale skirmishes in Gibson's Braveheart -- the number of people dying and the methods of their dispatch are amazingly violent -- but Scorsese has chosen to bookend it with sequences of ritual, highlighting that it's not just two groups of people coming together to beat on each other, but that there are rules and a method to the madness.
The two gangs trek to a snowy square to the fife and drum tune of Shimmy She Wobble performed by Mississippi farmer Othar Turner. The song has this great sense of bravado and totally builds anticipation for the impending battle. Once they reach their destination, the leaders from each side give a speech. Neeson and Day-Lewis shine here, each airing their grievances with the other in an incredibly eloquent way. Then there's a roll call of the groups fighting for each side and the formalities are over. What ensues is bloody hand-to-hand combat featuring axes, clubs, knives and swords. Scorsese's camera prowls through the maelstrom like a disembodied participant, capturing the violence without ever flinching. Day-Lewis and Neeson kill countless enemies with their blades while Neeson's cohort, Monk McGinn, crushes skulls with a heavy wooden club. It's bloody work, but Scorsese seems intent on capturing every atrocity committed by his characters -- like a quick shot of Gleeson taking his club to a guy's ankle and making it bend in a way nature never intended.
And yet, the most intriguing thing about the sequence is that once Priest falls to The Butcher's blade, a horn blows and the battle is over. While enemies remain alive, the combat stops and everyone gathers for Day-Lewis to send Neeson into the afterlife. After a short speech and a request from Neeson to kill him now, that's exactly what he does. It's this odd dichotomy of chaos and carefully choreographed ritual that makes the opening scene of Gangs of New York so compelling. The two distinct elements seem so incongruous, but here they are anyway. Check it out in the clip below.