Miramax // 2002 // 166 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // July 1st, 2008
America was born in the streets.
"I'm forty-seven. Forty-seven years old. You know how I stayed alive this long? Fear. Fearsome acts. A man steals from me, I cut off his hand. If he offends me, I cut out his tongue. If he stands against me, I cut off his head, stick it on a pike, and lift it up for all to see. A spectacle of fearsome acts. That's what maintains the order of things. Fear." -- Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis)
After spending sixteen years in an orphan's asylum, Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Aviator) is returning home to Five Points, Manhattan. It's the 1860s, and the Civil War is still raging. Meanwhile, there's a lot of small battles raging between various gangs in Manhattan. Some of these gangs are under the protection the law, some aren't, and some actually are the law. One thing is for certain: this is a world where you either kill or be killed. Vallon joins the powerful forces of Bill the Butcher (Daniel Day-Lewis, There Will Be Blood), and also finds himself falling in love with an attractive prostitute (Cameron Diaz, In Her Shoes). However, there's an ominous bit of history hanging over this situation: Bill the Butcher killed Vallon's father when Vallon was only a child. Does Vallon know this? If not, what is he going to do when he finds out?
Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York was a famously troubled production, encountering numerous problems and delays before it was finally finished in 2002. The film received a good deal of praise, and racked up no less than ten Academy Award nominations. Despite the film's obvious level of craftsmanship, there was a general consensus that the film was somehow lacking that enthusiastic magic that Scorsese's finest work contained. Perhaps it was the film's difficult journey to the finish line, or maybe it was the shift from crime stories of the 20th Century to the 19th Century. Whatever the cause, Gangs of New York simply doesn't have the unforgettable qualities of truly great Scorsese films like Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull.
That being said, even second-rate Scorsese is better than first-rate efforts from almost anyone else, and Gangs of New York is a fairly impressive and engaging journey to 1860s New York. The atmosphere created by Scorsese and his crew is very convincing, very effectively taking us to a new place. Scorsese had some top-flight talent working on this film, and it shows. Dante Ferretti provides the production design, Sandy Powell handles the costume design, and Michael Ballhaus supplies the top-flight cinematography. These individuals deserve significant credit for so authentically creating this world.
Scorsese compiles an A-list cast for the film, highlighted by the performance of Daniel Day-Lewis as Bill the Butcher. Day-Lewis commands every scenes he appears in and creates a character that is complex and frightening. This is the sort of memorable role that might have been considered a career-defining performance, if only Day-Lewis hadn't followed it up by playing Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. Elsewhere, there are solid supporting turns from old pros like Jim Broadbent (Hot Fuzz), Brendan Gleeson (In Bruges), John C. Reilly (Magnolia), and Liam Neeson (Kingdom of Heaven), though none of these individuals is permitted more than a small handful of noteworthy scenes.
This is a pretty solid hi-def transfer, further accentuating the sharp attention to detail in the production and costume design. As far as Blu-ray transfers go, this one is just about average. It won't knock your socks off, but it's pretty stellar. The uncompressed sound is very well balanced, and there's some dynamic subwoofer action during the film's explosive finale. Bonus features are carried over from the previous DVD release. The supplements seem generous, but I was left unsatisfied by them. The featurettes and documentaries focus on production design and the historical background, and Scorsese's commentary provides more of the same. However, there's a disappointing lack of discussion of the film's themes and ideas, and even less discussion of the problems that plagued the film's production and release.
Leonardo DiCaprio has turned into a pretty fine actor in recent times, but I don't think he was ready to take on the lead role in Gangs of New York back in 2002. His performance as a lover/fighter is unconvincing, and DiCaprio doesn't seem capable of sinking deep enough into the role to shed his familiar movie-star persona. Even less convincing is the performance of Cameron Diaz as a pickpocket prostitute. Diaz can play certain roles well enough, but she has rather limited range as an actress, and this particular role is well outside that range.
Originally, composer Elmer Bernstein had provided a score for the entire film (having previously worked with Scorsese on Cape Fear, The Age of Innocence, and Bringing Out the Dead). However, Bernstein's efforts were ultimately rejected, and Scorsese took an oddly anachronistic approach for the film's soundtrack. While various songs of the period are littered through the film as source music, Scorsese also employs very modern contributions from Peter Gabriel and U2 for the film. While the music is terrific on its own, it does have a tendency to take the viewer out of the atmosphere that everyone works so hard create. There are also selections from a concert work by composer Howard Shore, and these work well enough. Still, this is a pretty problematic and unfocused soundtrack that is a liability overall.
Though not Scorsese's best work, Gangs of New York is still an engaging film that doesn't feel too long despite a running time of nearly three hours. Recommended.
I've accepted a generous bribe from Boss Tweed. Not guilty.
Review content copyright © 2008 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (Widescreen)
* TrueHD 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 166 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Costume Design Featurette
* Set Design Featurette
* "History of the Five Points"
* "Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York"
* U2 Music Video "The Hands That Built America"
* Discovery Channel Special: "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York"
* Commentary w/Martin Scorsese