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After watching his father murdered in an epic battle between the ‘nativist’ and immigrant Americans, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) swears vengeance. Over a decade later Vallon infiltrates nativist leader Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting’s (Daniel Day Lewis) gang of dandy thugs, eventually falling too deep into the ranks for his own good. Vallon takes a break to fall in love with one of the Butcher’s ladies (Cameron Diaz), further muddling his revenge plans. Meanwhile, New York is torn apart by an increasingly bloody Civil War.

Gangs of New York
So Martin Scorsese finally won himself an Oscar, the only problem is that he won it for one of his most (comparably) average movies. Don’t get me wrong, The Departed is a fine film, but it’s got nothing on the fiery vigor of Goodfellas, Taxi Driver, or Raging Bull. The biggest problem is that the film came off as Scorsese impersonating Scorsese, something other filmmakers had already been doing for decades. The Departed was also a remake, and it didn’t take the gangster genre anywhere the director hadn’t already been. I think it was a step back, but it’s an understandable step back when one considers the relative failure of Scorsese’s previous crime film— Gangs of New York, which was set up to be the master’s final word on the subject.

Gangs of New York belongs in a long line of dream projects that go wrong. Sometimes famous and powerful directors nurse a project along for so many years that they’re entirely unable to look at things objectively, and the final product is a bloated mess of humourless pretension, with hints of genuine greatness. I find it hard to hate any of the long gestating dream projects I can think of off the top of my head (I own the extended cut of Peter Jackson’s King Kong), and sometimes they actually work (as is the case of Schindler’s List), but there is a definite sadness of missed opportunity to most of them.

Gangs of New York
That said, I actually think Gangs of New York is a fantastic mess, and a better movie then The Departed. Some of these sequences are among not only the best in Scorsese’s oeuvre, but the best in modern film. At its best this is exactly what we should’ve expected from Scorsese—a based in fact historical melodrama with a heightened sense of reality far more theatrical than anything we could ever find in the real life record. On his commentary the director calls it more of an opera then history, and when it works that is exactly what it is.

The opening sequence is like a force of nature, beginning in the alien catacombs of the immigrant ghetto, and moving slowly by steady-cam into the snow covered street, where a brutal and bloody battle then takes place. The scene should be stuck in a capsule, along with the D-Day attack from Saving Private Ryan and the train standoff from Once Upon a Time in the West, and shot into space so that alien species can study the best way to open a motion picture. Then, after a whole bunch of good but not great stuff, Scorsese hits us with an obvious but beautiful little self contained visual narrative, where his boom crane follows immigrants as they come off the boat, are put into uniform, and stuck onto another boat, which is unloading coffins. It’s a bit obvious, yes, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Then, after more good but not great stuff, Scorsese (who fails to pay off with a full blooded climax) creates a terrifying wall of images and sounds while recreating the bloody draft riots of 1863.

Gangs of New York
The cast is another mixed bag, and in some ways both the film’s strongest and weakest suits. I like Leonardo DiCaprio, and I think he did a fantastic job in the film’s lead, but he’s still distractingly miscast. Cameron Diaz is even more woefully miscast, and unlike DiCaprio, entirely out of her element (though I’d still call this her single best performance). The supporting cast, while a bit typecast, shows up these leads on most occasions, including a very understated performance from E.T.’s best friend Henry Thomas, but there’s simply no competing with Daniel Day-Lewis’ Bill ‘the Butcher’ Cutting. Day-Lewis would take the Oscar this year for a similar portrayal in P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a roll that will likely overshadow this one over time, but looking back Cutting may be an even more monumental achievement. It’s like staring into the sun, through the eye of a hurricane during an earthquake.

Video


First the bad news. The original Miramax DVD release, despite being stretched over two discs, was wrought with thick and painful edge enhancement (read all about it right here, written by David Beamish). A side by side comparison (or at least as side by side as one can get flipping between players on the same set) isn’t as kind to the new disc as I might’ve liked. There’re almost as many of the nasty white lines on this new, 1080p Blu-ray transfer. The enhancement itself is a bit thinner then the DVD release, but there’s just as much of it.

Gangs of New York
Now the good news. This transfer is noticeably better on every other level. First up is the overall brightness. Scorsese’s painterly use of red, white, and blue leaps off the screen with twice the vibrancy of the DVD release. Close-up details are immaculate, and despite the obnoxious edge enhancement, the wide shots reveal new details I missed even in theatres. There are some noticeable flecks of dirt and print artefacts throughout, but grain is shockingly minimal, and the general print is very clean. The big and most noticeable difference between the standard and high definition releases in the lack of compression noise, which depleted the details of the old release sharply.

Audio


Still no PCM abilities ‘round these parts (that PayPal account just isn’t growing), but I can say that this standard Dolby Digital 5.1 track is a noticeable improvement over the original release. There are still some problems with bleeding during DiCaprio’s narration, but the separation is tighter, and the general volume level is louder, both of which are symptoms of compression. The voices are all just a little bit clearer, the score is a little bit fuller, and the surround effects are a little bit more realistic. There’s nary a hint of distortion to be heard, and I have nothing to complain about.

Gangs of New York

Extras


Again Disney isn’t putting any new effort into the extras of these Blu-ray reissues. If you ever owned Gangs of New York on DVD, you’ve had access to all these extras. The film was shelved for almost a year, and when it was finally released it was amongst tales of Scorsese’s battles with producer Harvey Weinstein. There are still rumours of a director’s cut out there, despite Scorsese’s insistence that the theatrical release was his final cut. I’m still not totally convinced that we won’t see an anniversary release with additional footage someday down the line, or perhaps at least some deleted scenes. As it stands, the French DVD release still greatly overshadows this release in the extras department.

But until that day we can listen again to Marty’s fantastically informative and energetic commentary track. Scorsese is on the short list of directors that can always be counted on for a good commentary, and despite a few stops in momentum he does not disappoint. The audio quality changes a bit after pauses, leading me to believe that this track was edited together from a long series of sessions, but it doesn’t hurt things. I’d like a bit more talk about the behind the scenes troubles, but I can understand why the director wouldn’t want to burn any bridges this close to release date.

‘History of The Five Points’ is a tantalizing fourteen minute historical featurette that quickly runs down the bare facts of the area of New York which the film takes place. I think there’s room for improvement here, but I can’t think of exactly what needs to be added. This is followed by a series of other brief featurettes, including ‘Set Design’ (nine minutes), ‘Costume Design’ (eight minutes). There’s a more substantial multi angle featurette entitled ‘Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York’, which sort of speaks for itself.

Gangs of New York
Besides various trailers and a U2 music video (I’m the one guy in the world, apparently, that hates U2), the disc is rounded out with a decent made for Discovery channel special entitled ‘Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York’, which was aired around the same time the film came out in theatres. The special is informative, but has that distinct ‘made for TV’ Cliff’s Notes of history feel. Again, I’m not sure what specifically I’d add, but there has to be more.

Overall


Gangs of New York is a wondrous mess that never quite finds its footing, but still stands pidgin-toed above the rest. The film is actually more re-watchable then I originally credited it as being when I first saw it in theatres, thanks to effective and excitingly paced first and last halves. This Blu-ray Disc features no new extras, but looks sharper than the original DVD release. Unfortunately, that sloppy edge enhancement is still pretty bad, so I’m sure there will be some complaints from the hard core cineastes and tech-heads in the house.

* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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