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There is much history behind the movie Gangs of New York. History in the form of the backdrop of the story and history in the form of a director’s plight to bring his vision to screen both help to illuminate a movie that falls more than just a little short of being a masterpiece. At its best moments, Gangs of New York is a daring revenge tale and a character drama ripe with layers upon layers of mixed emotion and cautious loyalties. At its worst, the film is a historical drama that mixes and matches characters and events to bring about the maximum amount of excitement thereby ruining its use as a history class reference.

Gangs of New York
Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) and William “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) are the two central characters in Gangs of New York. Amsterdam lost his father in fight between the Irish immigrants and the Native Americans (who are not American Indians). During the opening battle scene (which plays, unfortunately, as if it were directed by some MTV rookie), Bill the Butcher takes the life of “Priest” Vallon (Liam Neeson). Only a young boy, Amsterdam is sent away to a reform school where he anxiously awaits the chance to take revenge.

The movie picks up in 1863 as an older Amsterdam returns to the savagely impoverished Five Points area of Manhattan. He immediately begins to seek out Bill the Butcher in order to exact revenge. It is this period of the movie that is the best. Amsterdam is still a young man, albeit a hardened young man. Through necessity, he makes friends with some of the most unlikely people and we are left to make our own assumptions of some individuals’ motives. Amsterdam meets Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) and their relationship during this period of the movie is brilliant.

Gangs of New York takes a turn for the worse in the third act. Instead of continuing to focus on the intricate character relationships that it so masterfully and carefully setup through the first 2 acts, the movie decides to become a historical drama centering on the Draft Riots. While the Draft Riots are an important and mostly forgotten piece of history, the audience has invested too much time into the existing micro-relationships for the movie to simply push them into the backseat. The events leading up the riots had always been in the background of Gangs and I was comfortable with them there.

The movie is beautifully filmed for the most part. As mentioned above, the opening fight sequence was strange and had an MTV quality that initially left a bad taste in my mouth. Fortunately, Scorcese finds a tone and style that remains effective and, in some sequences, is almost brilliantly conceived. All of the actors here are superb and, if you can get past Leonard DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz as 19th century hooligans, you will enjoy their performances much more. The real star here, however, is Daniel Day-Lewis. He is not playing Bill the Butcher, the man is Bill the Butcher. He plays Bill with such an intensity, I never once questioned his existence. The music in the film is hardly anything special and works effectively where it needs to accentuate emotion. The set design and costume work is top-notch.

Overall, Gangs of New York is a welcome addition to my collection as it should be in yours. The shift in focus is unsettling, but does not diminish the accomplishments of the revenge story in the long run. The movie would have worked either a straight character drama or a historical drama about the Draft Riots. It does not, however, completely flow as both. Each of the parts of the film are exciting in their own rights but only succeeded in distracting one part from the other. Scorcese has crafted a fine tale and, while not the masterpiece or even Best Picture candidate it was touted as, Gangs of New York is a very good film.

Gangs of New York
Presented in 2.35:1 widescreen (the films original aspect ratio), the transfer here is beautiful. Colors are vibrant throughout and are highlighted in many scenes, especially in the ones where the movie decides to visit the rich and powerful on 5th Avenue. There is some definite edge enhancement here, but it is not at a level that is particularly distracting. Overall, this transfer shows off the beautiful cinematography accurately.

I viewed this movie in its entirety with the DTS track. There is also a Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track that I used as a comparison on several key scenes. Not surprisingly, the DTS track was richer and fuller in all the expected places. Scenes such as the celebration in the pagoda are rich with surround and are a pleasure. Other scenes, however, like the opening fight sequences, are not as rich and full as one would expect. This goes for both the DTS and the 5.1 tracks. Overall, the sound is good, but not excellent. A few inconsistencies are enough to keep this from becoming very memorable.  

Gangs of New York
As I’ve said many times before, commentaries are far and away my favorite extra. Scorcese provides a delightful commentary for Gangs of New York and, while he doesn’t speak constantly through the entire movie, I found much rich information here. The history of the project is laid out and makes one appreciate the history of the movie itself. It’s a very good commentary with some pauses that were slightly distracting.

Sandy Powell, the films costume designer, is interviewed in the costume design featurette. Much work was put into making the costumes in this film historically accurate. This short featurette is just about the right amount of information the casual viewer would want to hear about the costumes.

There are 2 featurettes surrounding the impressive set design of the film. These two probably could have been combined. The first is an interview with the films production designer, Dante Ferretti. The next featurette is a lengthy tour of the elaborate sets with Martin Scorcese and Dante Ferretti. As the two walk around and discuss the historical accuracy of the sets the viewer has the opportunity, in certain spots, to view the sets in full 360 degree freedom. Unfortunately, this technology has not really improved and the view is still slightly askew when viewing the 360 degree photographs. Also, because of the DVD limitations, you view the picture in ¼ spinning chunks instead of being able to go back and forth freely like you would on a webpage. It was a novel idea, but the tour itself is much more useful.

The “History of the Five Points” featurette provides some historical information about the slummy neighborhood of 19th century New York. This is a watered down version of the much-more informative Discovery Channel special found on the second disc.

Next, we have one of those features that I never seem to like: text on screen. This text is an introduction from historical author Luc Sante that is yet another history of the Five Points (again, wait for the Discovery Channel feature). Also part of this text on screen feature is a listing of some Five Points vocabulary. Covering some of the slang used at the time (as used in the movie), this is mildly amusing until your eyes begin to hurt.

Rounding out disc one is the teaser and theatrical trailers and sneak peaks to several other films.

The most informative featurette is found on disc two and is the “Uncovering The Real Gangs of New York” special from the Discover Channel. With their usual gift for turning anything and everything into a riveting history lesson, the Discovery Channel released this special back when Gangs of New York was in the theaters. Thankfully, they focus less on the movie itself and more on the real life characters and events that play parts in the movie. This is a great featurette!

Lastly, there is U2’s music video for “The Hands that Built America”. I’ve always considered music videos a “throwaway” feature on DVDs and this is no exception. It was an okay song and not a great video.

Gangs of New York
Gangs of New York did not necessarily meet my expectations. I was excited by it until the third act started and then I was thrown aback by the sudden change in pace and focus. Aside from this shift, there is a brilliant story to be found and a competent director working with very talented actors. Epics such as this need a certain intangible quality that Gangs of New York did not seem to have. The movie, however, stands as a fine revenge story and, less so, as a historical drama. Not quite perfect, but still very good, it should make its way to you as, at very least, a rental.