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In 1977, Martin Scorsese took out a full page ad in Variety or one of the other Hollywood trade magazines advertising his next planned project--a film based on author Herbert Asbury’s 1924 book “The Gangs of New York.” The book was a non-fiction account of daily life in the slum that was New York City’s Five Points in lower Manhattan. There have been numerous theories of why the film wasn’t made, but the one that makes the most sense to me was that in the late 70s-early 80s, the so-called “age of the director” came to an end in Hollywood after such big-budget failures as Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. The studios no longer had faith in these young, innovative directors. No one was willing to spend millions and millions of dollars on a film like Gangs of New York.

The Five Points.
Twenty-three years later, the film began production in Rome. Numerous speed bumps and rumored upsets delayed the film’s release until this past December. Many theatergoers and critics, perhaps with their expectations set too high, felt it may not have been worth the wait. But when all was said and done, it seemed Scorsese got the film he wanted. Now Miramax has released a very generous 2-disc set of the film, complete with a commentary by Mr. Scorsese.

Note that the 167 minute movie is split across two discs. Disc 1 contains the first 75 minutes of the movie, and disc 2 has the remaining 92 minutes.

Gangs of New York is a realistic fiction story set against a very detailed historical background. In the years before the Civil War, New York City saw an enormous influx of immigration from all over the world. The racial tensions reached a boiling point in the area known as the Five Points, where the five burrows of New York meet in lower Manhattan. It was a small slum run by street gangs and political gangs alike.

In 1863, an Irishman named Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points after spending sixteen years in a reform house. He comes back to the points to avenge the death of his father, “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson), who was murdered in a bloody battle against the nativists (people born and raised in America) years earlier. His father’s killer: Bill the Butcher, the leader of the nativist gang. Bill, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, doesn’t recognize Amsterdam and takes him under his wing, putting him to work on various criminal activities. Amsterdam is still set on killing the Butcher, but he gradually learns the great amount of respect the killer had for his father.

For those who haven’t seen the movie, I don’t want to give much away. But what I can say is that I went into this movie looking for a revenge story set against a historical background. The first half of the movie sets up the revenge storyline, but then the movie takes a broad turn, and chooses to focus more on the history and less on the characters. The last quarter of the film deals with the draft riots of New York, a chapter in American history that isn’t very well known. When the first mandatory draft in the Civil War was put into effect, it came with a law that said that if you paid $300, you could have someone replace you in the draft if you were chosen. This was good news for the rich, but most of the people living in the five points were dirt poor--so, naturally, they got pissed off. A riot broke out that went on for days and caused the destruction of most of lower Manhattan and the deaths of approximately 2,000 people.

Gangs of New York
The draft riots are an extremely interesting piece of history, but I was very disappointed to find that in Gangs of New York, the history overshadows the characters that were so well drawn in the first half of the movie. It’s sort of a shame, but I wonder if Martin Scorsese planned it like this from the beginning. It’s hard to tell because a lot of writers worked on this script. Three were credited, but in the commentary, Scorsese tells of at least one more. (It seems like there were ten more. The movie’s got the feel of multiple writers, like an old photograph with a few different sets of fingerprints on it.) I have a sneaking suspicion that if this movie was made in the late 1970s as planned, it would have been more of a gritty revenge tale of the times and less of a history lesson. But again, maybe the basic outline of the story was left in tact after twenty years. Maybe if it had been made in ’77, it would be the same movie only with different actors. We’ll never know.

As it is, the movie is still amazing. It’s history class taught by Martin Scorsese. Besides the overall story, there are little things here, such as the use of fast-motion and some odd camera angles, that make this movie significantly more entertaining than your average period piece. And you can’t talk about Gangs of New York without mentioning Daniel Day-Lewis. His performance as Bill the Butcher is easily the most memorable aspect of the movie. Bill the Butcher is one of the best movie villains in recent years. He’s a terrible person, but so charismatic and honorable that he even manages to charm someone whose father he murdered.

Daniel Day-Lewis is perfect as the Butcher. As Amsterdam, Leonardo Dicaprio does a pretty good job. He doesn’t add anything to the movie like Day-Lewis does, but he doesn’t take anything away from it either. Ditto for Cameron Diaz as Amsterdam’s love interest, a pickpocket named Jenny. The best supporting character here is William “Boss” Tweed, played by Jim Broadbent. “Boss” Tweed was the mayor of New York at the time, and was just as corrupt as the street gangs he often used for muscle. Broadbent is great as Tweed, even though the movie sort of makes him out to be a nicer guy than he really was.

Gangs of New York is a highly enjoyable historical movie. Scorsese fans will especially appreciate this one, as it serves as a prelude to his other New York stories. The sets are unforgettable. This movie wasn’t shot on some studio lot in California. They rebuilt 1860s New York from the ground up. The sets, the costumes--every technical aspect of Gangs of New York is great. Watch it, like it, just don’t get your hopes up for the revenge story, as it gets drowned out by the draft riots. Also, watch for a cameo by director Scorsese as an uptown aristocrat whose house gets robbed by Jenny the pickpocket.

In the theaters, I saw Gangs of New York on the smallest movie screen in my local multiplex. It was a tiny little screen and the projector seemed to be dimly lit. The first scene of this movie (disc 1, chapter 1) begins in a deep dark tenement building, where the Irish gang the Dead Rabbits prepare for their battle with the nativists. The Dead Rabbits march through their lair and out into the open streets. The color of the scene changes to a blinding snow-covered cityscape. When I saw this in the theater, the snow looked gray. That’s how bad it was. So I was more than a little anxious to see this film again on DVD.

Gangs of New York
Gangs of New York is presented in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1. This is an excellent transfer. All the colors are deep and rich, and that’s really saying something considering the insanely multi-colored costumes. Scenes of characters just walking through the crowded streets look great (see disc 1, chapter 3). A lot of sets in the movie are lit by candles, like all of the scenes which take place in Amsterdam’s cave hideout. But they still look fantastic. Visually, my favorite scene is the annual celebration of the killing of Priest Vallon at Sparrow’s Chinese Pagoda (disc 2, chapter 3). This scene showcases the wide range of colors used in the movie by the costumes and sets.

Gangs of New York comes with a DTS track, but I’m one of the few reviewers here without a DTS-capable receiver. Sorry. So I’ll be sharing my thoughts on the disc’s Dolby Digital 5.1 track. I was sort of disappointed to find that the first scene of the movie--the march through the tenements--had most of its sound coming from the center channel. The music, the effects, the voices... most of it came through the center. The battle scene that follows doesn’t utilize the other speakers much either. It wasn’t until disc 1, chapter 4 that the sound really kicked in.

Disc 1, chapter 4 begins with a fire scene in which Amsterdam and his friend Johnny (Henry Thomas) loot a burning house. This sequence made full use of all five speakers and had some heavy bass, too. The chapter ends with the thieves splitting up their loot during a thunderstorm, which also sounds great coming from the rear speakers.

The dialogue is nice and clear, and so are the sharp sounds of Bill the Butcher cleaning and practicing with his knives. The movie gets damn loud with the draft riots and the 5.1 track does the sequence justice.

There are extras to be found on both discs, but most of them are on disc one, which makes sense because there’s less movie on the first disc, and more room for special features.

The main extra here is the feature-length commentary by director Martin Scorsese. If you’ve ever seen him on TV, you know that Martin Scorsese has a lot to say, and he says it all with lightning speed. This is a commentary of sprints. Right at the beginning, Scorsese lets you know that he’ll be “speaking to you periodically” through the course of the movie. This means there are short lectures of info followed by long pauses. It all seems to be screen-specific. Scorsese tells of the origin of the project (when he first discovered the Asbury book in the early 70s); he talks about the various stages of the screenplay’s life; he talks about working with DiCaprio and the rest of the cast. It’s an extremely informative commentary from a man who’s been working on this movie in his mind for more than thirty years.

The first extra on disc one besides the commentary is a short featurette called Set Design. This segment runs for about 9 minutes and features an interview with production designer Dante Ferretti, who’s worked with Scorsese before. There’s some interesting footage here of the miniature sets built in preparation for the movie. This short piece basically serves as an introduction to the next, more-in depth feature on the sets.

Dante Ferrretti and Martin Scorsese tour the sets.
Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York is a 22 minute tour of the actual sets of the move in Rome. Your tour guides are Scorsese and Ferretti, and the two show us most of the major sets of the movie. This featurette can be viewed with our without 360 degree pop-up options that allow you to see a rotating image of the set Scorsese and Ferretti are discussing.

Next up is the 8 minute segment Costume Design. Every costume in Gangs is extremely detailed and more or less historically accurate. So if you’re interested in that aspect of the film, you’ll like this extra, which features an interview with costume designer Sandy Powell.

History of the Five Points is a 13 minute segment that discusses the historical aspects of the movie. Historical advisors and cast members talk about the main historical points that the movie focuses on, like Boss Tweed’s Tammany Hall, the real life Bill the Butcher, and the various New York newspapers of the time.

Five Points Study Guide is a text extra divided up into two parts. First, there’s a lengthy written intro by historical author / technical advisor Luc Sante in which he puts into words most of what the other features talked about. The second part, Five Points Vocabulary, is more interesting. Taken from an 1859 book called “The Rogue’s Lexicon,” Five Points Vocabulary is exactly that--a few text pages of various slang words used during the time that were also used in the film.

Lastly, disc one’s got the film’s theatrical and teaser trailers, and a Sneak Peeks section (like most Miramax DVDs) that includes trailers for other Miramax movies like Kill Bill and Chicago.

Disc two had two extras on it, not including the continuation of the Martin Scorsese commentary on the second half of the movie. Discovery Channel Show: “Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York” is a 35 minute special that aired on the Discovery Channel at the time of the film’s release. As far as history goes, this is the most informative extra. It’s basically a longer, more complete version of the History of the Five Points featurette on the first disc. This special features interviews with various historical experts as well as Scorsese and cast members.

Last, and probably least, is U2’s music video for their song “The Hands that Built America.” The only noteworthy thing here is that this song lost the Oscar for Best Song to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” Bono must have been pissed.

Gangs of New York
I liked Gangs of New York a lot. A lot of critics said they expected more from Martin Scorsese, but really, what more do you want? Gangs of New York is more entertaining and involving than any run-of-the-mill action movie, and it’s bursting at the seems with historical info.

This is a very nice 2-disc set. At first, I didn’t like the idea of splitting the movie across both discs, but it really gives the viewer a much-needed rest. The extras sort of overlap each other in terms of historical info, but it's still a good bunch of extras for a damn good movie.