Martin Scorsese's epic Gangs Of New York is an interesting departure from his other efforts. Set in the New York City of 1864, we see the Five Points area of Manhattan home to scores of recently immigrated Irish ex-patriots. The British and Dutch settlers, who had been colonizing the area long before the Irish, are none too pleased with this recent turn of events and they decide to make their concerns heard quite loudly indeed.
A local tough named William Cutting (Daniel Day Lewis), better known as 'Bill The Butcher' thanks to his tendency to knife what he disagrees with, forms a mob of angry folks who consider themselves to be true Americans to show the Irish they want them out of their city. Of course, the Irish aren't too happy about this and so they decide to form a gang of their own, after all, there's strength in numbers. Dubbed 'The Dead Rabbits' and lead by a Catholic priest named Vallon (Liam Neeson), a massive gang fight erupts. Vallon doesn't make it out alive and his son is missing. He winds up in a boarding school where he grows up tough, and, after taking the name Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), he returns to the Five Points area to avenge his father's death and kill Bill The Butcher. What he soon learns, however, is that Bill, through force and intimidation, has pretty much gained control of the entire crime world operating in the area - he's even got a politician named Tweed (Jim Broadbent) on his side.
Amsterdam very carefully works his way in to Bill's organization and soon earns Bill's trust. He also falls in love with one of Bill's ex-girlfriends, a thief named Jenny (Cameron Diaz). Amsterdam's plan is starting to look like a sure thing and he thinks it's only a matter of time before he's able to avenge his father's death but there are those who know more about his past than he realizes. While all of this is going on, The Civil War is in progress and the great city of New York is rioting.
Although Scorsese had wanted to make this film since the 1970s, it wasn't until decades later that he'd finally get the chance. When the film hit theaters it met with mixed reviews but time has been kind to the picture and it holds up well under repeat viewings. While the film does take some liberties with historical facts here and there, Gangs Of New York really does work well as entertainment. The performances are uniformly strong across the board, from the scene stealing Daniel Day-Lewis' excellent portrayal of the incredibly nasty Bill the Butcher to DiCaprio's sympathetic Amsterdam. Supporting performances from Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent and even John C. Reilly are equally strong and as the film plays out you realize just how well cast and well acted it really is.
Much of the film was shot on sets built on a studio lot in Italy but the attention to detail is terrific and you'll have no trouble at all believing that this is the New York City of the mid-1800s. This is a very well shot picture with some gorgeous cinematography and fantastic lighting all of which perfectly compliment the tight script and great acting. Some might take issue with the lengthy running time of the film but it never feels slow or padded, rather you get the sense that you're watching a true epic of a film. The romantic subplot could have maybe been trimmed down a bit, but aside from that this is a pretty lean film even if it is over three hours long.
Gangs Of New York arrives on Blu-ray in a VC-1 encoded 1080p anamorphic 2.35.1 widescreen transfer and in some ways this is a big improvement over the standard definition release but it isn't without its problems. There's a lot more detail and clarity here but the film has been tinkered with a bit and as such the flesh tones look a little too orangish in some spots. Overall, color reproduction is good and the black levels look excellent but this transfer looks very digitized and it doesn't have the filmic look that the picture had in theaters and while the gritty scenes still look appropriately gritty, a lot of the natural film grain seems to have been wiped off the picture. On the plus there aren't any problems at all with compression artifacts but if you look for edge enhancement you're going to notice it in abundance. Some mild print damage does show up in some scenes in the form of some minor specks. Overall, this doesn't rank up there as one of the best Blu-ray transfers on the market and the film might look a little too clean for some eyes, as it's definitely been over processed, but it does look better than the SD release, though that's hardly high praise.
The primary audio mix on this release is an English language uncompressed 48 kHz 24-bit PCM 5.1 track but Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound tracks are also supplied in English and in French with optional subtitles also supplied in those languages and closed captioning provided in English.
The PCM track is light in the lower end and doesn't supply as much bass as you might expect during the impressive fight scenes, but is otherwise quite good. Dialogue stays clean throughout and the rear channels are used effectively when they're needed. In the quieter moments there are some nice ambient effects that you can listen for while the score sounds very good from start to finish. Levels are well balanced and there aren't any problems at all with hiss or distortion to complain about though DiCaprio's narration has some odd minor echo to it.
All of the extra features that were on the standard definition release have been carried over to the Blu-ray disc but sadly, they're all presented in 480i standard definition. That said, these supplements are quite good beginning with director Martin Scorsese's commentary track. Those who didn't give this track a spin on the SD release or those who just want to enjoy it again can listen as the director enthusiastically recalls his efforts to get this picture finished. This is quite obviously a very personal project for the man and his passion for the history of New York City comes through in quite an infectious manner. He talks not only about casting the film and making the picture but also about why he wanted to tell this story and about how he finally got to do it. There are some moments of awkward silence here and there and it would have been interesting had he gone into more detail about some of the film's infamous problems (budget being the big one) but as it stands this is quite a solid track.
Up next is a fascinating Set Design featurette that allows Dante Ferretti to talk about what went into basically rebuilding old New York on a set in Italy. We get a look at some production artwork done to prepare for this pretty monumental task as well as some good behind the scenes footage. This featurette works nicely alongside Exploring The Sets Of Gangs Of New York where we're basically taken on a guided tour of the set by Ferretti and Scorsese. This gives us a bird's eye view and allows us to see just how massive and detailed these monstrous sets really were.
The History Of The Five Points gives the film some welcome historical context and does a great job of explaining how and why this area of Manhattan became such a contested area. Interviews with historians give us some insight into this rather interesting neighborhood and this is absolutely worth a watch. Even better is the Discovery Channel Special: Uncovering The Real Gangs Of New York where for over half an hour we're treated to some interesting insight from historians and authors on the real life counterparts to the events and the characters portrayed in the film. There are some interesting paintings and pictures used to illustrate various points and this too does a fine job of providing even more historical context for the feature film.
Rounding out the extra features is an interesting Costume Design Featurette where Sandy Powell explains how the wardrobe for the film was created, a music video for U2's The Hands That Built America, a teaser trailer, the film's theatrical trailer, animated menus and chapter selection.
It's a damn shame that the transfer has been overly processed on this release as it's otherwise a pretty good effort. The film holds up well and even if it isn't Scorsese's best it's still very much worth a look and the supplements are interesting and compliment the feature nicely. Gangs Of New York is recommended on the strength of the film and the supplemental material, with the caveat that the transfer is probably going to annoy those who (understandably) want the movie to look like film.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.