DVD Review – Gangs of New York Director, Martin Scorsese; Producers, Alberto Grimaldi and Harvey Weinstein; Screenplay, Jay Cocks, Steve Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan, based on a story by Jay Cocks; Director of Photography, Michael Ballhaus; Art Director, Dante Ferretti; Editor, Thelma Schoonmaker; Music, Howard Shore. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C. Reilly, Henry Thomas, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, Alec McCowen, David Hemmings, Barbara Bouchet. An Alberto Grimaldi Production. A Miramax Films Release. Color (prints by Technicolor). Super 35 (2.35:1). 167 minutes. MPAA Rating: R. Released December 20, 2002. DVD: Released by Miramax Home Entertainment. Street Date July 1, 2003. $29.99 2.35:1 / 16:9 Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1 Digital Surround (English); French Language Track. Special Features: Costume Design Featurette; Set Design Featurette; History of the Five Points Featurette; multiple-angle, 360-degree set shots; Discovery Channel Special “Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York”; “Five Points Study Guide” with Luc Sante introduction and Five Points Vocabulary; Audio Commentary with Martin Scorsese; Trailers. Reviewed by Stuart Galbraith IV It took director Martin Scorsese 25 years to bring Gangs of New York to the screen. Few films in recent memory generated as much worried prerelease trade press, and despite mixed reviews the film went on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. The picture explores of the origins of organized crime in 19th century New York and attempts to function as a kind of antecedent to everything from Scarface (1932) to GoodFellas (1990). Gangs of New York paints a broad canvas with characters real and imagined, grappling with issues from unjust conscription laws to racism, poverty, political corruption, turf wars – even the origins of the Manhattan's infrastructure. Ultimately, though, Gangs of New York has a script that boils down to a standard revenge melodrama, albeit with an elaborate and unique production design. Insofar as that goes, the picture is entertaining if overlong, and the historical recreations keep things interesting. The story's focus is Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio), an Irish immigrant whose father (Liam Neeson) was killed 16 years earlier by Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), whose anti-Catholic/anti-immigrant gang then took full control of New York's Five Point District. Now, under the growing cloud of the Civil War, and unaware of the boy's identity, "The Butcher" takes Amsterdam under his wing, making him his right-hand man. As the gang's power and influence grows, Amsterdam bides his time, waiting for the right moment to strike back at his father's killer and renew the Irish-American cause. Stretched over 167 minutes, the elephantine production has more in common with Samuel Bronston's epics of the 1960s, films like 55 Days at Peking (1963), than, say, more character-rich films like The Godfather. As someone who actually likes Bronston's epics, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. But we never much get into Amsterdam's head, and his romance with pickpocket Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) is no more believable than Charlton Heston's was with Ava Gardner. But like Bronston's epics (of which Scorsese himself is a fan) Gangs of New York loves its elaborate and detailed sets, its lavish costumes and attention to little historical details. In that light the picture can be a lot of fun, but it's not in the class of a Goodfellas or a Raging Bull. How is the Transfer? In a rather surprising move, Miramax has spread the feature over two discs. Disc One runs 85 minutes while Disc Two clocks in at 82 minutes. The DVD's special features likewise are spread out over both discs. Undoubtedly, there will be complaints about this. Partly this is justified as the break comes at an awkward moment and would have been better positioned at a more obvious break ten or so minutes further in. As someone who used to watch movies Super-8 and 16mm, with reel changes every 20-40 minutes, and then later on 30-minute CAV laserdiscs, one minor break is no big deal. The upside to all this is obvious, however: the picture looks and sounds fantastic. Beyond some very minor edge enhancement, the Gangs of New York DVD is very good. Presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio with an anamorphic transfer, the film has rich color and sharp resolution. The sound, in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, is up to modern industry standards. Special Features The DVD's extensive Special Features offer an invaluable historical background on the picture's setting, from its architecture and apparel to its political anecdotes and geography. Indeed, the special features focus on the film's historical accuracies and liberties while generally sidestepping the controversy surrounding the film's production. This is certainly true of the nine-minute “Set Design Featurette” and the eight-minute “Costume Design Featurette,” both of which are serviceable and moderately interesting. Much better is the “Exploring the Sets” feature, which runs 22 minutes and shows Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti touring sets built on the backlot of Italy's Cinecitta Studios. There's a story that when George Lucas saw the elaborate recreations of 19th century New York he told Scorsese that he could have saved himself a lot of trouble using CGI. Whether that's true or not, the fact remains Scorsese built what was basically an enormous backlot just for this picture. The sets, both exterior and in soundstages, are elaborate and detailed. Had the film been shot in the United States, one can easily imagine the picture costing twice its $100 million budget. This segment also has an added, 360-degree view function. As Scorsese and Ferretti tour the sets, a prompt allows the viewer to stop the tour and switch to a 360-degree angle of that particular location. One has to admire the gee-whiz aspect of the technology to do this, but the effect is rather like shopping for a home on the Internet. The view is also so radically distorted that its value is rather limited. Also on Disc One is an informative 13-minute “History of the Five Points,” as well as a “Five Points Study Guide,” but even on my 55-inch TV the font for this latter feature -- several pages of text -- appeared relatively tiny and not easy to read. Martin Scorsese contributes an audio commentary track, some of which is derived from an interview he gave to Terry Gross for her excellent National Public Radio show “Fresh Air.” As usual, Scorsese speaks at a breakneck pace and this results in about eight hours worth of commentary over 167 minutes. Finally, Disc One offers a half-dozen trailers for other Miramax releases, including Quentin Tarantino's forthcoming Kill Bill. Two trailers for Gangs of New York are likewise included. Disc Two has a 35-minute Discovery Channel special, “Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York,” a flawed but generally interesting history of the Five Points area before, during, and after the events chronicled in the film. U-2's “The Hands That Built America” video is also included. None of the special features, including the trailers, are anamorphic. Parting Thoughts Anyone expecting a GoodFellas in period dress will likely be disappointed with Gangs of New York. The picture's core is entertaining but shallow, and the entire film nearly suffocates under the weight of its elaborate production. But the film also offers a rare look inside an unjustly forgotten time and place in American history. For that alone the picture is worth seeing, and Miramax's DVD offers both an excellent presentation of Scorsese's film and informative supplements which shed new light on its setting.