Martin Scorsese’s 2002 epic Gangs of New York is set in the Five Points section of 1860’s lower Manhattan, a dark, swarming corner of the city known for its vice and chaos. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), a young Irish immigrant and the orphaned son of murdered gang leader “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), has returned to the Five Points after serving 16 years in a reform house. The reason for his return is simple: to exact revenge on his father’s killer, “Bill the Butcher” (Daniel Day-Lewis), the merciless leader of the Five Points and one with an intense dislike for the waves of immigrants coming into the country, in particular the Irish.
Each year, on the anniversary of Priest’s death, the victory is commemorated with a celebration. This is where Amsterdam plans on killing Bill. Before then, Amsterdam works his way deep into the Butcher’s inner circle. The closer he gets to his prey, however, the more he falls under Bill’s spell and becomes conflicted–playing the role of the killer’s surrogate son while keeping the true secret of his past.
Complicating matters further for Amsterdam is Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket whose independence from all that surrounds them fascinates him. When details of her closely linked past with Bill emerge, the relationships between the three intensifies. Amsterdam’s fight for family honor, freedom and the woman he loves ultimately collides with a pivotal moment in both New York and American history: the 1863 Civil War Draft Riots.
The screenplay by Jay Cocks (The Age of Innocence), Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List) and Kenneth Lonergan (You Can Count on Me) attempts to cover a lot of ground, both fictional and historical, in a short period of time. In addition to Amsterdam’s story, the Civil War draft and its ensuing riots, the script also includes New York’s rampant corruption, racism and massive influx of immigrants. Any one of these topics could have been properly developed into its own three-hour film. By stuffing as much historical and fictional context into a single film (possibly the result of several years of rewrites), the story and the relationships between characters begin to lose their dramatic focus as the movie proceeds to its bloody conclusion.
Fortunately, Scorsese knows how to keep the film on course, even if the script dictates otherwise. Few working today in Hollywood could take on a project as expansive as Gangs of New York and manage to make it work as well as he does. The brilliance of his direction and decades-long passion for the project shine through in practically every frame, be it his attention to period detail, the performances he gets out of his strong ensemble cast or the way he moves the story’s events along. Scorsese’s work here might not reach the levels of greatness of Raging Bull, Taxi Driver or his greatest work to date, Goodfellas, but it is in possession of a raw power and technical brilliance that commands and holds one’s attention from start to finish.
With the sole exception of Cameron Diaz, who was out of her league here, the acting in the film is uniformly first-rate. Still, no one comes close to matching the level of brilliance brought forth by Daniel Day-Lewis. Lewis’ Bill the Butcher is one of the most interesting, deplorable and well-rounded screen villains we had seen hit movie screens in quite some time (prior to his work in There Will Be Blood). Similar to Robert DeNiro’s Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull or Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List, Bill the Butcher is a character we can despise, empathize, be completely afraid of yet never take our eyes off of. It’s an articulate, mesmerizing and completely unforgettable performance from one of, if not the, best actors in film today.
Martin Scorsese had been trying to get Gangs of New York to the big screen for nearly a quarter-century. This included a couple of years of actual production that could be called tumultuous at the very least. Despite the delays and issues, Gangs turned out to be well worth the wait. Harkening back to an era where story, character and true artistic passion were the driving forces behind making an epic, Gangs of New York is a powerful work of cinema that every serious film fan should seek out and treasure.
Buena Vista Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray release, however, is a disc that every serious home video collector should seek out and avoid. Released in 2003, the standard-definition edition of Gangs was widely-and understandably-trashed. Edge enhancement, compression artifacts, you name it, they all made the movie an artificially sharp mess that had little to no picture detail and proved to be somewhat of an eyesore. When the Blu-ray release was announced a few months ago, I was elated. Disney has been consistently strong with the picture transfers for their BD releases, which led me to think that Gangs would finally get its due respect on home video.
Sadly, I was wrong. It appears that the Mouse House has recycled that atrocious transfer from five years ago for this release, and while it is a slight improvement over its SD counterpart, the added picture resolution from the 1080p/VC-1 encode seems to only accentuate the transfer’s faults. The edge enhancement is so apparent at times that some of the characters look like they have force fields around them (maybe that is how Bill won the fight at the beginning of the film). Then there is the heavy use of digital noise reduction which renders the picture grain-free and dull while giving the actors’ skin a waxy look. Adding salt to the BD wounds is a surprising amount of dirt, nicks and marks on the print given its age, and on more than one occasion, the picture displays a slight hiccup, as if someone hit the machine handling the transfer. I would expect this kind of work from a small, independent home video company, but Disney?
Is there anything nice to say about the video transfer? Well, the colors and black levels are stronger here than they were on the SD release, and compression artifacts are non-existent. And oh yeah, it’s nice to have the film presented on one disc, uninterrupted. That’s… pretty much about it, I’m afraid.
The audio presentation fares somewhat better than the video, despite its own shortcomings. The 5.1 Dolby Digital track, at 640kbps, is forceful if a tad too loud for its own good. The uncompressed PCM track, however, sounds just fine. The enhanced audio track tends to reveal some of the film’s recording issues, such as DiCaprio’s narration in the beginning of the movie (it sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber), more than the SD edition did, but overall the track does the trick. Dialogue through the center channel, narration aside, is nice and clear, while the left and right fronts get a decent workout. Surrounds are used occasionally to good effect. Bass wasn’t as forceful as one would expect, but it does make its presence known every once in a while.
All of the extras from the 2003 2-disc DVD edition have been ported over for this release. While not all-encompassing, the supplements are still quite interesting as they examine not only the film, but the real-life people, places and events that inspired it.
Feature length commentary by Martin Scorsese: As we all know, listening to Martin Scorsese talk about movies, including his, is like attending a film class taught by a really cool teacher. Despite some dead spaces here and there, the filmmaker provides a good amount of insightful stories and information about the film’s production history.
History of the Five Points (13:33): This is an interesting historical look at the real-life Five Points that offers interview snippets with Scorsese, DiCaprio, historical advisor Luc Sante, Liam Neeson and Jim Broadbent.
Set Design (9:12): Dante Ferretti’s superb sets built at the legendary Cinecitta Studios in Rome are the subject of this short, which also covers preproduction, the actual construction of the sets and appreciations from the cast and crew.
Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York (22:31): A companion piece of sorts to the Set Design short, Scorsese and Ferretti act as the viewer’s tour guide as they walk through the Five Points set, offering recollections and anecdotes along the way. This short reaffirms just how much work went into constructing these massive sets, and serves as a reminder that Ferretti was totally screwed by the Academy for not winning an Oscar back in 2003 for his work.
Costume Design (8:00): Just as the title implies, this short is a quick look at Sandy Powell’s costumes for the film and the research she did to achieve authenticity. It’s worth a look, but is the weakest short of the bunch.
Discovery Channel Special: Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York (35:09): Originally aired back in December 2002 on the Discovery Channel, this special takes an interesting look at the real-life people and places that formed as the basis for the film.
Rounding out the extras are the U2 Music Video for the film’s closing theme song “The Hands That Built America” (4:41), and the film’s excellent Teaser and Theatrical Trailers (both 2:30). Like the other supplements on the disc, these which are presented in 480p and 4×3 widescreen. All are in okay shape.
Talk about being conflicted: I love Gangs of New York and have no problem recommending the film itself, but I can’t recommend that you dish out $25-30 to own it. Buena Vista Home Entertainment, who has been very reliable with their BD transfers, must have let their interns do the work on this disc as there’s just no other way to explain it outside of someone at Miramax/Disney having a serious grudge against Scorsese himself. I know a lot of you out there were eagerly awaiting this release (myself included), but I can only recommend that you give it a rent and see the results for yourself. Losing five bucks on a rental is far easier to stomach than thirty dollars on a purchase.