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From such brilliantly bright beginnings, dark clouds soon gathered over the Gangs Of New York production. Having exhausted all his significant powers of persuasion to prise Daniel Day-Lewis from his part-time seclusion as a Venetian cobbler, director Martin Scorsese was exasperated to find press reports claiming his leading players had suggested that the enigmatic performer, who insisted on staying in character off set, was difficult to work with.

Leonardo DiCaprio got a dressing down in front of the entire assembled crew for turning up late after a previous night’s heavy partying in Rome. Indeed, DiCaprio soon became the only actor in 70 years to be “actively disliked” by veteran David Hemmings. There were rumours of script pages being re-written in between takes, rumours of budgetary problems, rumours of a big bust-up between director Scorsese and Miramax head honcho Harvey Weinstein, rumours of editing that did not meet Scorsese’s approval; all as the release date slipped further and further away.

What actually occurred may never be made public. What is known is that, after a troubled birth, Gangs Of New York was unleashed upon an expectant audience waiting for Marty to finally land the big one...

Gangs Of New York
In 1846, in New York’s notorious Five Points district, William ‘Bill The Butcher’ Cutting (Day-Lewis) leads his ‘Natives’ cohort in a decisive street battle against the Irish-backed ‘Dead Rabbits’ gang headed by the priest Vallon (Neeson) for control of the entire turf. In the course of the combat Bill The Butcher slays Vallon before the very eyes of the clergyman’s son. Despite escaping Cutting’s clutches, the young boy is unable to evade the long arm of the law and is placed in a penitentiary.

Returning to the Five Points having spent the last 16 years of his life locked away, the adolescent Amsterdam (DiCaprio) has sworn revenge for the murder of his father. In order to make his homicidal justice that more poetic, “one must kill a king before his whole court”, Amsterdam works his way within Bill’s organisation that has links all the way up to the political office held by the irrepressibly corrupt Tammany Democrat ‘Boss’ Tweed (Broadbent).

Never does the path of vengeance run smooth for Amsterdam becomes entangled with Bill’s sometime squeeze Jen (Diaz) and actually comes to admire his murderous mentor’s success while other residents of the Five Points may be all too keen to reveal his real identity before his quest is complete…

Scorsese, gangland, a blockbuster budget; Gangs Of New York couldn’t fail. Marty was a shoo-in for Oscar success and surely some of the other top talent on display would swipe a gong or two. Alas it was not to be with Scorsese ending up empty handed again as the noisy, not to mention vapid, Chicago hit all the right notes with the Academy electorate.

Indeed, perhaps part of the problem was that this was not enough of a Scorsese movie to sway the voters. While many remain, some of the signature Scorsese touches have been airbrushed away to leave Gangs Of New York looking a little anonymous. Regular cinematographer Michael Ballhaus was on hand as well as the wonderful Thelma Shoonmaker on editing duty but the traditionally roving camera is curiously static, characterisations are muted to the point of being swallowed by the staggering surroundings and Catholicism motifs are cumbersome.

The script can’t sustain the vitality of the opening 30 minutes and once all the main characters are introduced a very simple revenge plot labours on until the final reel. The aforementioned is not to imply that Gangs Of New York goes nowhere in a hurry, the civil war within the Civil War theme is nicely handled, but the threadbare plot unravels at around the half way mark leaving a big brooding build-up to an insufficient climax. Post-production shenanigans should shoulder some of the burden but in what is a wonderful history lesson for an oft-forgotten period of American culture, the uncoordinated script doesn’t scale the Shakespearean heights to which it clearly aspires.

As such, performances suffer. Leo, while not sinking to the depths of his Titanic turn that led to him being labelled (unfairly or not) as ‘leading man DiCraprio’, can’t summon the vestiges of a What’s Eating Gilbert Grape showing either, thus failing to elevate the hero above a mean n’ moody appearance. Diaz simply looks lost as her strong showing in the opening act tapers off very quickly with little for her to do except oblige as a whimpering love interest for Amsterdam. Liam Neeson gives it all the gravitas he can in a thankless role in providing the focus for a plausible revenge mission, John C. Reilly tries to make himself noticed behind a bushy moustache and wonderfully weird accent with the talented Henry Thomas short-changed as Amsterdam’s confidante.

Gangs Of New York
That said, count on and Brendan Gleeson as a seemingly unscrupulous opportunist  and the canny Jim Broadbent for a bit of fun in nabbing most of the best lines. Yet all the above are blitzed by Daniel Day-Lewis, rendering futile any comparisons with his co-performers. In Diaz’s own words; “Daniel doesn’t act a character, he becomes that character”.  So Bill The Butcher enters the pantheon of cinema’s great villains, a dangerously menacing 19th century dandy by turns hostile, honourable and malevolent.

Having been in semi-retirement since The Boxer, Day-Lewis shows no sign of screen rust and it will be an absolute outage if no one can persuade him to continue acting. One fears that Hollywood needs him much more than he needs tinsel town. It’s a pity that Day-Lewis doesn’t find a film to take full advantage of his talents. Martin Scorsese has made weaker movies than this but never one that was quite so bland.

Upon taking receipt of this title, the main concern was in reference to the transfer. Cramming a 160 minute movie with accompanying DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks onto a single disc was never a simple task. To their credit, EIV have ensured that compression artefacts are kept to a minimum and the crispness of the transfer is impressive indeed. Colours, in accordance with Scorsese’s palette, remain muted throughout, with the exception of the final few scenes where bold wardrobe hues are employed so as to denote just who is who in the melee. Fleshtones are commendable too, effectively marking the social class of each character just by the healthy (or not) appearance of his/her skin.

So far, so good. The main drawback on this transfer is not that it is at all bad, rather that it should look much better than it does. Taking into consideration the budget and love lavished on the production, the DVD presentation should prove as awe-inspiring as the set design. Alas, this proves not to be the case with a steady, if unspectacular, bitrate of 3.45Mb/s – 4.25Mb/s during the course of the film. Other similarly long movies like Laurence Of Arabia or The Bridge On The River Kwai, of significantly greater age it must be said, have made the transition to DVD much better than Gangs Of New York which is a real shame.

So, if the picture isn’t enough to blow you away the surround tracks must be quite special, yes? Unfortunately, neither the DTS nor the Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks deliver that knockout blow for which the viewer may hope.

True, the DTS offers some meaty subwoofer pulses in the pitched battles and very decent channel separation in the bustling streets but it’s just not as involving as it might be. At a couple of key points dialogue struggles for depth from the centre speaker and Broadbent’s languid delivery as Boss Tweed does suffer occasionally.

In comparison the Dolby Digital equivalent is a more driving experience, while never becoming strident, that perhaps better showcases Howard Shore’s score at the expense of some of the clarity that can be found on the DTS example. Again, it’s a case of being good without grabbing the greatest accolades..

Gangs Of New York
Interestingly, unlike the equivalent New Line R1 release, this R2 EIV effort fits the whole movie with the accompanying commentary on disc one whereas the second disc houses all the remaining features.

Topping the bill is the Audio Commentary from director Martin Scorsese. Everyone’s favourite Italian-American motormouth gives it all he’s got in the duration of his spoken piece although left on his own even he, at the odd point, has to pause. It’s a fascinating fact-filled trip through the process of the making of such an immense movie and it won’t be lost on the viewer the passion for the project that Scorsese has had burning inside him for more than 20 years.

In such a personal commentary, with regard to much of the gossip mongering that was written and spoken at the time, Scorsese is very guarded when broaching certain subjects. He does touch on the film’s budgetary scale, the enormity of which was entirely alien to him, yet refuses to go further into how this created animosity (or not, as the case may be) between himself and Harvey Weinstein. On-set bust-ups get a wide berth too so those looking for the low-down on exactly what went on in those few fractured moments will be looking elsewhere. In some ways, Scorsese’s deliberate obfuscation is certain to contribute to and further mask myths, legends and outright lies that surround the production, much like Sergio Leone with his magnum opus Once Upon A Time In America.

Disc two is split into several mini-sections. The first of these is a Set Design featurette. Hosted and narrated by chief set designer Dante Ferretti, this is an interesting 9 minute piece in which Ferretti outlines the history of his previous projects with Scorsese (including The Age Of Innocence) and the mammoth 5 month undertaking of the sets’ building schedule which effectively involved the faithful construction of the whole 1862 Five Points/Lower Manhattan locale. Along with Ferretti, contributions regarding the experience of working within such a ‘real’ environment are included from several of the main players, the most pertinent of which is that of Day-Lewis, and also second unit director Vic Armstrong.

A companion piece to the above is the Exploring The Sets featurette boasting a ‘360 degrees’ viewing option that at certain key moments on the press of the ‘Enter’ button, followed by utilisation of the left or right cursor buttons, allows a digitised panorama of the particular set in question. Here Scorsese and Ferretti go on a 22 minute walkabout of the now disused but eerily intact Cinecitta backlot swapping on set anecdotes about the ideas behind, research for, and execution of, each facet of the truly staggering stages.

Hot on the heels of the above is an 8 minute Costume Design featurette in which head of department Sandy Powell and cohort Paolo Stefano Scalabrino talk their way through the creation of the sartorial ‘look’ of the film using archive sources and Scorsese’s own fervent imagination. An interesting point raised is that very little record of the clothing worn by the poorer sections of society were ever made which necessitated a little dramatic licence on the part of Powell. Thus some fantastical elements have been incorporated, particularly with regard to Bill The Butcher’s wardrobe among the 7,000 costumes in total, 3,000 of which had to be designed from scratch.

Gangs Of New York
Establishing a context for Scorsese’s latest movie in respect of his other gangster related work falls to the 14 minute History Of The Five Points featurette hosted by the film’s historical advisor Luc Sante, a more dull man you could never hope to meet. Nevertheless, what Sante's delivery lacks in pizzazz it makes up for in content by tying in the organised underworld activities depicted in Mean Streets, Raging Bull, Goodfellas and Casino with the historical precursors that may be found in Gangs Of New York.

The Five Points Study Guide provides two sections, the first of which is a text introduction to the movie, written by Luc Sante, which covers much of the ground outlined in the previous featurette while never forgetting to plug the Miramax tie-in novelisation. The second is perhaps of more interest being a text-based dictionary for the unique ‘New World’ vocabulary that crops up in the movie and it may even benefit viewers to sample this prior to watching the film proper.

Expanding on this section is a 35 minute Discovery Channel programme that retreads this conveniently forgotten part of American history. Rather more than simply a plug for Scorsese’s movie, this is a fascinating insight to the formation of contemporary New York society, laying the groundwork for an understanding of the events that are depicted in Gangs Of New York. Again, this is one facet perhaps best viewed before taking in the movie, so well does it inform an understanding of elements glossed over in the narrative.

The 11 minute Making Of Gangs Of New York featurette falls by the wayside in comparison to what has gone before on the extras disc. This is pure promotional self-congratulatory fluff all the way, at least half the running time taken up by clips from the movie with the other half employing material already covered by the previous features. One point of note is the soundbite section where the actors are asked to congratulate each other; witnessing Day-Lewis struggling to find something flattering to say about DiCaprio is both excruciating and timely in highlighting the gulf in acting class between the English performer and all those around him.

The penultimate extra is U2’s Hands That Built America music video. The extent to which one would enjoy such a feature is dependent on the artist and the song but it’s a traditional slickly produced promotional soundtrack video with plenty of the juiciest excerpts from the film. Viewed on its own it’s an acceptable enough piece but all the clips from the music video are available at least twice from the various other features on disc two.

Gangs Of New York
The final extra is the Original Theatrical Trailer. Anyone who visited their local multiplex around the festive season in 2002 would probably have seen this trailer but it is effective in rapidly establishing the epic scope of the story and the motivations of the main players.

All the above can be accessed by a single scored menu screen. Not hugely exciting in getting the job done, the average DVD-phile splashing out for a double disc set might expect rather more for their money, especially for such an Oscar nomination laden release such as this.

Compressing such a long film with DTS and Dolby Digital tracks onto a single disc was always going to be a big ask and EIV have presented a pretty decent effort. The value added material is up to scratch, despite a bit of repetition here and there, although opinions may well remain divided as to the wisdom of affording the extras a disc all of their own.

It’s big, bold and Martin Scorsese firing on 10 out of 12 cylinders still makes for a finer film than most fellow directors could muster. What makes Gangs Of New York so notable is that it represents the single greatest missed opportunity of Scorsese’s career and that’s plain criminal.