Our review of Gangs Of New York (Blu-Ray), published July 1st, 2008, is also available.
America was born in the streets.
Considered by many to the greatest living director working today, Martin Scorsese has helmed some of the most critically acclaimed films, including Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, the remake of Cape Fear and the feel good mob flick GoodFellas. In 2003, Scorsese finally brought to the screen—after a nearly 20 year struggle, a troubled production, and negative buzz—the Oscar nominated Gangs of New York. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic, Romeo + Juliet), Cameron Diaz (The Mask, Charlie's Angels), and Daniel Day-Lewis (My Left Foot), Gangs of New York fights its way onto DVD in a new two-disc set care of Miramax. Let the grudge match begin!
Facts of the Case
Gangs of New York take place in the grime and dirt of the 1840s. It is a time when the city looks far more like a melting pot of sewage than the New York we're used to seeing. In the Five Points district, various locals and immigrants fight to the death over a piece of Miss Liberty's land. As the film opens we see Irish Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson, Rob Roy) and his band of "Dead Rabbits" as they prepare for a battle against Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Day-Lewis), a vicious beast who rules his land with an iron fist. On the streets the two groups meet, each bashing the hell out of each other with knives, axes, and bats. When the battle finally ends with Vallon's death at the hands of Cutting, it looks as if it's all over for the Dead Rabbits. Before the day is through, Vallon's son Amsterdam is able to escape into the catacombs beneath the Manhattan skyline.
After spending years in a reform school, Amsterdam (now played by DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points in search of revenge for his father's death. When he finally meets up with Cutting, Amsterdam finds himself mesmerized by his charisma and grip on the city. Amsterdam soon becomes what appears to be Cutting's right hand man, running errands and being taught how to kill a man properly. As Amsterdam struggles with his feelings for a female pickpocket (Diaz), he begins to devise a scheme to reinstate the Dead Rabbits (whose name has been banned from the Five Points by the Butcher) and exact his revenge for the death of his father.
Scorsese's Gangs of New York is a big, gigantic, violent sprawling epic that is, at its core, a movie about the underbelly of America's past. This is a bloody, beastly film that is a no holds barred fictional look at what it took for immigrants and outcasts to carve out a niche of their own in one of the most dangerous cities in America. The history of Gangs of New York is one fraught with disappointment and frustration. Scorsese had been trying to bring the film to the screen for decades, and after a few rumored problems on the set, the film went on to make only around $80 million at the box office. It also went head-to-head with Steven Spielberg's hit Catch Me If You Can, also starring DiCaprio, during the bustling Christmas movie season. Basically, it was Leo vs. Leo, and Leo won (how shocking). And though it was nominated for multiple Oscars (including Best Director and Best Actor), the film took home not a single gold statue.
From the folks I've talked to about Gangs of New York, everyone seems to be very polarized by the film—either moviegoers loved it or they hated it, with seemingly no in-between. I am in the camp that loved it. Though I've never been a huge Scorsese fan—I've seen GoodFellas and while I think it's well crafted, I'm not crazy about it—I was a little taken aback at how enthralled I was with Gangs of New York. Scorsese has taken a time in American history—the middle 1800s—and brought it to bustling, brawling life. There is always something bubbling under the surface of this film, a feeling like the whole city is about to go up in a big explosion of blood, gun powder and grime (and in a few well shot scenes, it does). Scorsese's films are well known not only for their stories but also their characters; from Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver to the return of "Fast" Eddie Felson in The Color of Money to Max Cady in Cape Fear, Scorsese's stories have always featured larger than life characters and portraits of men and women on the brink of life and sanity.
In Gangs of New York, the memorable character running ahead of the pack is Daniel Day-Lewis' Bill the Butcher, a mean son of a bitch that instills as much fear as he does laughter. In what may be a tour-de-force performance of the decade, Day-Lewis destroys the scenery with a brash New York accent and pit bull demeanor that is one part mesmerizing and another part insane. Bill is a man that is feared by all, and with his glass eye (which he likes to tap from time to time with a knife tip) and towering top hat, he is as close as you can come to the devil incarnate. In fact, Day-Lewis' performance is so memorable and enticing that it makes the rest of the performers pale in comparison. It's interesting to note that Day-Lewis was actually "retired" from filmmaking and working as a cobbler when Scorsese enticed him back into acting for Gangs of New York.
Leonardo DiCaprio does his best brooding as Amsterdam, a boy consumed with hatred, anger, fear, and lust. Though he does a passable job here, I've never found DiCaprio to be an overtly moving actor—in Gangs of New York he tends to scowl a lot, then look sad, then he scowls a little more. Cameron Diaz, an actress who always looks good but fares better in comedy than drama, is the weak link of this group. Diaz's accent flutters in and out of range a few times, making for a snicker-inducing performance. In fact, the truth is that her role was not really needed—she's just window dressing for DiCaprio make goo-goo eyes at. Other fine notables include John C. Reilly (Magnolia) as a corrupt police officer, Brendan Gleeson (Braveheart) as a hired clubber/politician, and Oscar winner Jim Broadbent (Iris, Moulin Rouge) as the real life inspired politician William "Boss" Tweed.
Most impressive are the sets and locations (filmed overseas) that Scorsese utilizes. His version of early New York is so grimy—so hideously dirty—that it rivals the Hughes Brothers' London in From Hell. There isn't a single tooth or fingernail that's clean, each sporting a thick coating of dirt and grease. In this vision, New York is a place inhabited by thieves and politicians, the poverty stricken and the brutal, each vying for a piece of the American pie. In one fantastic shot, Scorsese pulls back to show the majesty of the production—a huge landscape of bustling people among a wooden tower. If the film is worth seeing for any single reason it's for Dante Ferretti's epic production design.
I have no qualms in saying that I really enjoyed Gangs of New York. This movie won't be to everyone's tastes—the beginning battle is shockingly well filmed, but it's brutal and bloody—those who like Scorsese's work will most likely find many things to like. It may not rank as one of Marty's best efforts, but it sure is damn entertaining.
Gangs of New York is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 widescreen with an anamorphic enhancement. The nearly three hour epic is spread across two discs, the second part being the longest of the two. Generally speaking this transfer is in great shape, save for some surprising dirt and grain in the image. Since Gangs of New York is a brand spanking new film, it was a bit disappointing to see such imperfections in the image. However, putting that complaint aside the transfer is great—colors and black levels are all solid and dark with the flesh tones represented accurately. All in all this transfer isn't reference quality, but it should look good to fans of the film.
The soundtrack is presented in two options: DTS 5.1 Surround and Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, both in English. Truth be told, both of these tracks will do wonders on your surround sound system—there's a multitude of directional effects and sounds to be found in both mixes, with the DTS track boasting a bit better clarity. I noticed no distortion or hiss in the mix, making for a great listen. One of the best things about the movie (and these soundtracks) is the Oscar nominated U2 song "The Hands that Built America" and composer Howard Shore's (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Silence of the Lambs) bombastic music score. Also included on this set are English and French subtitles, as well as a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track in French.
A few well produced extras have been included on this set, making this is a very well produced special edition by Miramax. Here's a rundown of what's on this two-disc set:
Commentary by Director Martin Scorsese: Those who know anything about Marty know that he's a mile-a-minute talker who has a bountiful knowledge of cinema, film production, and movie history, The commentary for Gangs of New York doesn't disappoint with oodles and oodles of stories about the production, the historical background on the film, and the real gangs of New York. Unfortunately, there isn't a lot to be heard about the shoot's troubled history—but no matter, this is a still a worthwhile commentary track that is spread across the length of both discs.
"Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York," ""Sandy Powell's Costume Design," "The History of the Five Points," and "Dante Ferretti's Set Design" Featurettes: Each one of these focuses on various aspects of the film's production. On "Set Design," we get a first hand glimpse at what it took for Dante Ferretti to bring Scorsese's vision to the big screen. In "Costume Design" we're given a look at—how shocking—Sandy Powell's period piece costumes and how expansive it was to get all those extras looking just right. "Exploring the Sets" offers viewers a chance to see the director and the production designer walking around their sets and giving us a look at the magnitude of the production. Also included is a little bonus pop-up window that allows for a 360 degree look at the set (multi angle option). In "The History of the Five Points" we're given historical background on the real life story of Gangs of New York with comments by various scholars and people of importance. Out of the four I found the historical featurette to be the most intriguing. All in all, these well produced (if all too brief) featurettes should give viewers a good idea of what went into the making of the film.
"The Real Gangs of New York" Documentary: This half-hour documentary was originally aired on the Discovery Channel. For those looking for background information about the real struggles of New Yorkers in the 1800s, this is a good place to start. Featuring archival pictures, documents, writings, and comments by scholars, this is a fine little piece that takes you beyond Scorsese's movie and into real life. Though I would have liked this to have been a bit longer, overall it's a well produced supplement.
Finally there is a theatrical trailer and teaser trailer for the film (one in anamorphic widescreen and the other in full frame), a music video for the song "The Hands That Built America" by the rock group U2, a Five Points Study Guide, and The Five Points Vocabulary (from 1859's "The Rogue's Lexicon" by George Matsell).
It's always nice to come away from a movie with more than you anticipated—I highly recommend this film to those who've always wanted to see a street brawl the size of Brooklyn on their TV set. Gangs of New York is a very good movie, and Miramax's work on this disc is well above average.
Gangs of New York is found not guilty of the crimes brought against it (mediocrity), and free to beat the stuffing out of the other DVDs at Blockbuster Video. The court stands adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Martin Scorsese
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