I know. "Gangs of New York" earned 10 Oscar nominations (though it didn't win). And director Martin Scorsese did his homework, scouring archives, listening to recordings of New York period accents, consulting the author of Five Points, and basing most of the exteriors on vintage photographs. But two elements still feel phony to me. One is the opening battle, which feels like a cross between "Braveheart" (with all those axes, swords, animal skins, and feral dialogue) and "Bladerunner" (because of a post-apocalyptic set decoration). The other is Daniel Day-Lewis's performance as Bill "The Butcher," which feels like the lone caricature in an otherwise believable community of 19th-century New York City lowlifes. When he walks, wearing those plaid pants, his legs move like a carnival stilt man. Even contemporary-looking Cameron Diaz blends into her period surroundings better.
The whole time I was watching this I kept thinking, I can't wait to get to the bonus features to find out whether it's accurate or one of Scorsese's fantasies. Turns out it's a little of both. Scorsese took more than a few liberties. Though he got the inspiration for the "icicle building" that houses the natives gang from a period photo of a burned-out building in winter, there's no trace of ice or snow anywhere else, so it looks absolutely fabricated. And while historically Scorsese learned that the old abandoned brewery that houses the rival Irish Catholic gang was indeed a haven for the homeless and gangs, he took a tidbit of information ("it had nooks and crannies") and created a wholly imaginative interior that looks so bizarre and cavernous that it conjures up those "Bladerunner" images. But if you can get by the overly stylized and fantastic treatment in the beginning, the film evens out into a more believable depiction of American lives in turmoil and squalor. Big battles frame this film, and are probably intended to "hook" viewers. But I enjoyed the meat of this "sandwich" much better.
After the opening battle, which pits Bill the Butcher's "natives" against Irish led by "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson), we fast-forward anyway to 16 years later, where a stewing Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio) wants revenge on the man who killed his father in that battle. He's quickly absorbed into the Five Points area, but not in the way you'd expect. Things have changed, and while "respectability" is too strong of a word, Tammany Hall and its puppetmaster, Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent) is trying to work with the gangs in order to advance his own goals.
I may be a little hard on Day-Lewis, but I don't think so. If you consider one scene where Tweed and The Butcher have a sit-down, Day-Lewis's manner of speaking seems as artificial as one of those cancer-causing non-sugar sweeteners. Bill is the only one who looks and feels like a Thomas Nast caricature, while the others come closer to Jacob Riis photographs. But enough about that. There's still much to admire in this film.
Check out one of the bonus features, "Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York." Scorsese and production designer Dante Ferretti walk and talk as they go from set to set. What's amazing, though, is that if it weren't for the cameras trailing them and an occasional light tower, there's absolutely no evidence that this is a Hollywood set. It's seamless. The men walk through all the locations, and you realize that they've essentially built an entire community, where even the hallways and alleyways are period. The film has a rich look, and in another bonus feature Diaz remarks about how amazed she was by a double candle chandelier that was so ornate (and did, in fact, have hundreds of candles on it) she couldn't believe it. Neither can we, and there are a number of details and features that make this a rich-looking film, despite the obvious conditions of extreme poverty.
Then there's the plot. How many times have we seen a film where someone goes undercover in order to get revenge and becomes so close to the target that he's thought of as the right-hand man? And the friend who turns on him, or the big guy's woman who takes a fancy to him? Yet, transplanted to an exotic time and place, these tropes find new life. Though the plot is "small," this film has a big, epic feel to it, and you have to credit Oscar-nominated writers Jay Cocks, Kenneth Lonergan, and Steven Zaillian for interweaving just enough history and politics to make Vallon's personal battle seem like one of many going on in a city that had yet to find itself. Set during the time of the Civil War, the gang battles and chaos are augmented nicely by recruiting posters, draft details, and political debates. It's also hard not to like a film that has such colorful characters as Hell-Cat Maggie (Cara Seymour), Jimmy Spoils (Larry Gilliard Jr.), and Happy Jack (Reilly), or gang and place names like Satan's Circus, the Dead Rabbits, the Plug Uglies, and the Bowery Boys.
Even if "Gangs of New York" was just a warm-up for the film that would finally earn him his Best Director's Oscar four years later, it's still an interesting film, especially if you watch it in the context of other Scorsese films like "The Age of Innocence" (1993), "Goodfellas" (1990), and, of course, "The Departed" (2006).
Blu-ray really captures the subtle details to be found in a film where the colors lean toward a specific palette. There are lots of golds and browns and dark tones and shadows, and in 1080p the colors seem rich, not dingy, while the level of detail is excellent. The film is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio, and the transfer (VC1 codec) is excellent, with no apparent artifacts.
The featured soundtrack is an English PCM 5.1 (48kHz/24-bit) uncompressed audio, which is stunning, really, in its clarity, purity of tone, and distribution of sounds believably and naturally across all the channels. Additional audio options are English or French Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, with subtitles in English SDH or French.
Loads of bonus features here, including a very nice commentary from the self-effacing Scorsese that covers most of the bases you'd expect him to. As I said, though, the feature that convinced me that this is a film to admire is that walk-and-talk tour of the sets. "History of the Five Points" didn't tell me nearly enough about the questions I had, partly because there's only one expert who talks around some of the points but never hits them squarely on the head. It doesn't help that non-experts like Scorsese and DiCaprio sit on stools and expound on the history, as if they'd just finished their dissertations. Better are the set design and costume design featurettes. All of the bonus features range between 15-20 minutes, and they're worth a look.
If you want history, the better feature on this disc is a Discovery Channel Special: "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York." Though far from perfect (and part promo, of course), this 35-minute documentary covers more ground in more entertaining fashion. Rounding out the bonus features are a couple of trailers and a U2 music video, "The Hands That Built America."
It's not a perfect film, by any stretch of the imagination, and when there are cinematic sins they're sins of excess. But "Gangs of New York" entertains. Though Scorsese weaves fantastical elements into a historical framework, "Gangs of New York" still feels like an epic on the order of "Roland" or any of the stories that help to explain and define a nation.