Gangs of New York review by Mike Long

In the film Adaptation, screenwriter Charlie Kaufman learns that a script, even one based on everyday mundane activities, must have drama, because drama is everywhere. This may seem like an obvious statement, but it is, in fact, something that all screenwriters should keep in mind. The problem begins when too much drama is added to a film and the story gets bogged down in incidentals. That’s the case with Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, an entertaining historical drama that bites off more than it can chew.

Gangs of New York takes place in the year 1862. Sixteen years after the death of his father, Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) leaves the orphanage in which he’d been placed and returns to the Five Points district of Manhattan, the area in which he’d been raised. He’s there seeking revenge on Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), the man who killed his father. Bill is a local thug who lords over the residents of Five Points, and Amsterdam suddenly finds himself a member of Bill’s gang. He also meets Jenny (Cameron Diaz), a pickpocket who is as tough as they come. As Amsterdam gets closer to Bill, he begins to put his plan into motion, but Bill is wily and won’t be easy to kill. This story is told against the backdrop of the poverty of the time and the unrest which stemmed from the Civil War.

That synopsis only glosses over the event which occur in Gangs of New York, a sprawling film of nearly three hours which contains dozens of characters. And what we basically have here is two films. First of all, there is the story Amsterdam and his hatred of Bill. We watch as Amsterdam plots his revenge and works his way through Five Points searching for allies.

Secondly, there is the historically accurate tale of New York City in 1862. We meet “Boss” Tweed (Jim Broadbent), a real-life political overlord, who uses the gangs in Five Points to manipulate elections. Also, we see how the upper-crust residents from 5th Avenue react to the poverty of Five Points. The racism of the time is pervasive throughout the film, as we see the immigrants and Blacks get mistreated by the “Native Americans”, who are led by Bill. Finally, the threat of the Civil War leads to riots surrounding the announcement of a draft.

This may not have been the intention of Scorsese and is screenwriters, but it’s this second story which really carries the film. The “main” plot involving Amsterdam and Bill is incredibly Shakespearian and offers few surprises. That story includes all of the necessary ingredients for melodrama -- revenge, love, betrayal -- and really never goes anywhere. It’s the true story that is the most interesting aspect of the film. In many ways, the revenge plot is unnecessary. The film could've easily been about immigrants struggling to survive in a new land and still had plenty of story. While watching the movie, all that I could think of was, “I can’t wait for this to be over so that I can watch the documentaries on the DVD.” And on those documentaries, the historians state that Gangs of New York illustrates a period in American history that few are aware of. I certainly wasn’t, and it was that aspect of the story which made the film worth watching.

Story problems aside, the film does excel in other departments. The acting is good, as Daniel Day-Lewis shows why he was nominated for an Oscar and won several other awards for his portrayal of Bill the Butcher. He transforms himself into this complex character who is clearly evil, and yet cares deeply for those around him. DiCaprio is OK, as Amsterdam, although he doesn’t always show as much emotion as one would expect. The film is a technical marvel, as the incredible sets and costumes lend a true air of believability to the movie.

Gangs of New York is an enjoyable film which works better as a history lesson than as a drama.

Gangs of New York arrives on DVD from Buena Vista Home Entertainment. The film has been letterboxed at 2.35:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 Tvs. In an unusual move for a modern DVD, Disney has decided to spread the film out over two DVDs, most likely so that the video and audio quality of this nearly 3 hour film wouldn’t be compromised . (And in a very smart move, Disc 2 DOES NOT contain those pesky WARNING screens, so that one can jump right back into the movie.) This may seem like a nuisance to many, but it does result in a nice transfer. The image is very sharp and clear, showing only the slightest hint of grain at times. There are some moments of subtle artifacting, but these usually result from horizontal lines or sudden camera movements. The color scheme of the film looks very good on this transfer, as the grey and bleak locations of Five Points are generally livened up by colorful costumes. The framing appears to be accurate and Scorsese makes good use of the widescreen frame. Overall, a very nice looking transfer. The pretty pictures are matched by an excellent audio display. The DVD contains both a DTS 5.1 track and a Dolby Digital 5.1 track. The DTS tracks sounds fantastic, as it delivers clear dialogue and sound effects, coupled with outstanding surround sound and subwoofer effects. The film’s numerous crowd scenes and battles are accented by the surround sound effects and the finale is a showpiece of subwoofer action. The Dolby track is very good as well, but doesn’t have quite the clarity or impact of the DTS option. Either way, the sound is very good.

The DVD contains many good extras. We start with an audio commentary from director Martin Scorsese. He speaks at length throughout the film and extensive knowledge of film and filmmaking comes through here. The only real drawback to this commentary is the Scorsese gets off-topic , and doesn’t comment directly on the scenes in the film. Otherwise, his chat is very interesting. We also learn about the making of the film from several featurettes on Disc One . The first is a 9-minute segment which focuses on the design and construction of the film’s sets. Then, we are treated to a 22-minute feature in which Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti tour the sets. This contains an additional feature where the viewer can use their remote control to take a 360-degree tour of the sets. The 8-minute feature on costume design offers insight into how designer Sandy Powell created the look of the film.

The best extras are those which explore the true story behind the film. "History of the Five Points" is a 13-minute segment which gives an overview of the geography of the area, as well as the history of lower Manhattan. Several historians are featured here, and there are comments from Scorsese as well. The "Five Points Study Guide" offers a text history lesson from historian Luc Sante, as well as a dictionary of lingo from that era. Disc One also contains both the theatrical trailer (framed at 1.85:1 and the teaser (full-frame) for Gangs of New York.

Disc Two features an exemplary documentary from the Discovery Channel entitled "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York". This 35-minute show explores the history of Five Points and Manhattan and reveals which parts of the film were based on fact. I highly recommend this extra. Finally, the disc contains the music video for the Golden Globe winning song "The Hands that Built America" from U2. I've got two words for this: Play some old shit.

While Gangs of New York didn't live up to its hype (or the two year wait), it is definitely a well-made and entertaining film. The DVD is definitely worth seeing, as it contains a great transfer and educational extras.

7 out of 10 Jackasses

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