Directed by Martin Scorsese
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 1080p VC-1 codec
Running Time: 167 minutes
Audio: PCM 5.1 English; DTS 5.1 English, French
Subtitles: SDH, French
MSRP: $ 34.99
Release Date: July 1, 2008
Review Date: June 22, 2008
Martin Scorsese’s sprawling, overambitious Gangs of New York is an eye-opening, psyche-numbing experience. This lengthy tale of gang crimes and rampant corruption in New York City during the second year of the Civil War scores points for enlightening viewers on facets of American history hitherto unknown, but its very ambitiousness is partly its own undoing. Even at over two and a half hours, there isn’t enough time to cover adequately the many components that made up the fetid breeding ground for hatred, prejudice, and revenge that was New York City of this period in history.
The gang wars of the 1860s involved a number of rival groups representing many cultures and nationalities, but the reigning criminal kingpin of the Five Points area of New York was William "Bill the Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis.). In much the same way that Al Capone ran Chicago rackets during his 1920s heyday, so too does Bill receive a portion of spoils from all of the other gangs operating in the area. Bill consolidated his power one bloody day in 1846 when his Natives emerged on the winning side of a violent skirmish against the Dead Rabbits. Bill skewered their leader Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), and his son (Cian McCormack), allowed to live by Bill, returns sixteen years later seeking vengeance. Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) insinuates himself into Bill’s mob and in effect becomes the son he never had, and much to his surprise, begins enjoying the fame, the connection to power, and in particular a conniving pickpocket (Cameron Diaz) who tickles his fancy . But jealousies and betrayals eventually take their toll, and it becomes clear that an inevitable duel to the death between the two adversaries simply must happen.
The central story of revenge in the screenplay by Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian, and Kenneth Lonergan is bodacious and completely absorbing, but the writers have also woven into their scenario the notoriously corrupt regime of Boss Tweed and his Tammany Hall compatriots along with the rising outrage in New York City over the country’s first draft which eventually resorted to dragging immigrants off of arriving ships and signing them up for military duty in the Union Army all the while allowing sons of the wealthy to buy their way out of conscription for $300. As fascinating as these simultaneous occurrences were in the history of New York, the film can’t help but seem overstuffed with plots and focuses which even a master director like Martin Scorsese has a hard time gathering together into a single unforgettable experience. There are sequences in this movie which rank among the greatest ever directed by this über-talented man (the nerve jangling knife welding exhibition with Day-Lewis and Diaz is one such example), but as all of these plots run headlong into one another at the film’s climax, it’s a resultant cacophony of violence and horror whose effect seems lessened somewhat by its very complexity. A film about this little known multi-day riot over the draft is entirely warranted, but it doesn’t get its due here.
Scorsese has rounded up a formidable array of acting talent for his central roles, and they’re all remarkably well cast and perform the challenging roles with dazzling dexterity. Daniel Day-Lewis may not be top billed, but his riveting “Bill the Butcher” is among his career high points, and he‘s definitely the best thing in the movie. A vicious man who speaks with reason and solemnity, he’s the most dangerous kind of psychopath, and Day-Lewis‘ every appearance lifts the film from any torpor it may have settled in during some less interesting sequences. The blossoming love affair between DiCaprio and Diaz doesn’t hold much interest though their individual performances certainly are commendable. DiCaprio as a man of action doesn’t quite ring true, however. (He did far better work for Scorsese in their next film together, The Aviator.) Jim Broadbent makes a determined scalawag of Boss Tweed, and John C. Reilly has some very effective moments as Constable Happy Jack. Also winning points for their masterly skullduggery are Henry Thomas as Amsterdam’s best friend Johnny and Brendan Gleeson as Walter "Monk" McGinn, a warrior who doesn’t care which side he fights on as long as he gets paid.
Gangs of New York was nominated for ten Academy Awards in 2002, but was shut-out at the awards ceremony by the more deserving wins for films such as Chicago, The Pianist, and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. The film has remarkably involving sequences with some of Martin Scorsese’s most sweeping direction. The film’s period has been captured to perfection with the looks and sounds of a city teeming with life but with a growing sense of becoming recklessly out of control. It’s a shame that in its striving to include as much of the unknown history of the time within its boarders, the movie exhausts itself and somewhat lessens its notable achievements.
The film’s 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio is captured in a 1080p transfer using the VC-1 codec. Sad to say, what you’ve read is true about the look of this film on Blu-ray. It’s been processed within an inch of its life so that all grain is gone and contrast has been dialed up to being slightly too hot giving the features of the actors a slightly waxen look that robs them of some detail and character. The picture is super sharp, but you can see edge enhancement often as a result of the processing. Color is rich, and blacks are stupefyingly deep, and many may actually enjoy this “video” look for the movie, but while I didn’t exactly despise it (hence the video score above), I didn’t think for a second that it looked like film. An added note: even with all of the processing, they still managed to miss some dirt specks that are still present in the image. The film has been divided into 24 chapters.
The PCM 5.1 track (6.9 Mbps) is an effective complement to the on-screen visuals. There are some impressive instances of directionialzed dialog that give the audio an alive quality and some good use of the surrounds for ambient effects through the lengthy running time of the movie. LFE gets a little bit slighted, though. I was expecting much more bass than the soundtrack delivered given the mob fights and the use of gun weaponry in the movie. Obviously, there is low bass present, but not to the degree I anticipated.
Martin Scorsese contributes one of his irrefutably interesting audio commentaries. The director has much to say about the period and his own work for decades to get it captured on film, and as always, his commentaries are enthusiastically delivered. He doesn’t speak non-stop; there are gaps between segments of his commentary.
Documentaries from the previous sDVD edition of the movie have been ported over to this Blu-ray release. However, they’re mostly in 4:3 and always in 480i.
“History of the Five Points” makes for a nice overview of the period giving us the ethnic makeup of the district, the history of Irish immigration to America, the era of Boss Tweed, the entertainment of the period, and the gangs that made up the region. This featurette runs 13 ½ minutes.
A featurette on the set design for the movie features production designer Dante Ferretti discussing his previous work with Scorsese, the research that went into designing the sets, and the building of the sets in Rome. Many of the principal actors are also present to praise the lavishness of the sets and their feeling of authenticity. This piece lasts 9 minutes.
Director Martin Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti explore the sets in a fascinating 22 ½ minute tour of the full sized sets constructed for the film. Many of Scorsese’s comments here are repeated in his audio commentary, but seeing the sets as he talks about them and their references to real-life New York City locations make this the most interesting featurette on the disc.
Costume designer Sandy Powell discusses the 7,000 costumes (3,000 of which had to be specially built) used in the production of this epic film. Several of the main actors also comment on the clothes they wear in the movie.
Discovery Channel Special: “Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York” is the 35 minute episode from the series detailing the truth behind the fictional characters who are the focus of the movie. Clips from the film are also woven into the documentary's narrative.
U2 Music Video: “The Hands That Built America” is the 4 ½ minute music video featuring the band performing their Oscar-nominated song from the movie. Clips from the film are interspersed with the band filmed in black and white and sepia.
2 theatrical trailers, each running for 2 ½ minutes, complete the bonus selections offered on the disc.
Also on the Blu-ray are previews for Blu-ray releases of No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Gone Baby Gone, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Smart People, and Step Up 2 the Streets.
Gangs of New York is a very good but not great Martin Scorsese picture. (I much preferred his next two outings: The Aviator and The Departed). It’s a huge movie with great actors delivering some of their best-ever screen work, but my recommendation before you buy the disc is to rent the film if you’re curious to see how the processing will affect your enjoyment of the picture.
This film is another in the series of Blu-rays where Disney offers a $10 rebate for upgrading from a sDVD version of the film. See the coupon contained in the package for further details.