Gangs of New York

When I first heard about the film Gangs of New York three factors drew my interest; I’m of Irish descent, I’ve lived in New York City most of my life and I have always enjoyed the films of Martin Scorsese.

When I first heard about the film Gangs of New York, three factors drew my interest; I’m of Irish descent, I’ve lived in New York City most of my life and I have always enjoyed the films of Martin Scorsese. With all of this I held great anticipation for Gangs of New York, I was not disappointed.

The story takes place during the mid-nineteenth century in a turbulent neighborhood of lower Manhattan called the Five Points. This was an area where only the most desperate of people would dare to live. Many Irish Catholics have fled the famine of Ireland to settle in the United States, stopping due to lack of money in New York. They where detested by the members of early waves of immigration that now considered themselves to be the only ‘true Americans’. Gangs form around violent factions such as the Dead Rabbits (Irish Catholics) and the Nativists (the American born). A Dead Rabbit leader called Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) girds himself like a holy man preparing for a ceremony, but here the ceremony is battle with the Nativists lead by the brutal William (Bill the Butcher) Cutter (Daniel Day-Lewis). The bitter gang fight that ensued was recorded in history although long forgotten by most. Vallon is killed by the Butcher leaving his son Amsterdam to the horror that was child care then, the Hellgate House of Reform. Great name for a place for children to grow up, isn’t it? When Amsterdam grows to manhood and emerges as Leonardo DiCaprio and vows to take his revenge on Bill the Butcher. This was a time when democracy was in the crucible, tested to its limits. There where two opposing police forces, Boss Tweed held all the political power in the city and crime and violence was a matter of life in the city. Against this ominous background young men like Amsterdam had little in the way of a future so revenge could easily become the driving force in his life. Of course, there has to be a romantic sub plot which is accomplished by the introduction of Jenny (Cameron Diaz). As a successful and adept pickpocket she ranks high on the social ladder of the criminal element. She plies her trade with skill not brute force, victimizing the rich and socially elite.

The complex interaction of raw emotion and violence drives Gangs of New York. We also have to consider the city itself as a character. New York, and Five Corners specifically, is far more than a backdrop for the action, it is an active participant. Democracy was still young, untested, and it was in this grimy section of a large city where it would be put to the ultimate test.

The detailed viewpoint Scorsese brought to bare on the set was also focused on the selection of a cast. He needed actors capable of transporting themselves back to a more visceral time in American history and allows the audience to witness the social forces that shaped them emotionally and prompted their actions. These roles if presented by lesser actors would seem to one dimensional; they would come across only as violent brutes. Instead we get to see how the times and circumstances shaped them, how they are much the same as ourselves, people striving to protect their own and find some modicum of happiness in a turbulent world. Day-Lewis is at the top of his game in this respect. His portrayal of the Butcher shows a man that is as skilled with his words as he is with his deadly blades. He is committed to keeping the newly arrived Irish Catholics from impinging upon his world.

I have rarely truly enjoyed performances from DiCaprio in his past films but in Gangs of New York he shows he is growing into the role of leading man. He presents some emotional investment for the audience tempering his hatred for the Butcher with his growing love for Jenny. Diaz also displays the ability to bring the past to life. As an intelligent woman in a time where there where few options afforded her gender she makes the most out of the hand she is dealt. Also of note is the performance of Jim Broadbent as the nefarious Boss Tweed. His man is rapidly becoming one of the greatest character actors of our time.

Martin Scorsese has been called one the greatest American directors. Actually, he is the greatest New York City director. His love and dedication for our city is evident in almost everyone of his films but never to the degree displayed here. His detailed recreation of the Five Points area is nothing short of miraculous. I have often stood on the very spots where this drama unfolded long ago, changed over the years but now returned to its original form by Scorsese.

Every frame of Gangs of New York is a thread in an overall tapestry, each adding to the rich flavor and impact of the movie. Scorsese’s use of color is dominates Gangs of New York. This is seen not only in the colors embraced by the gangs but also in the brutal red of blood, the glow off a character’s flesh and the set. For a film that comes in at 166 minutes you need a director like Scorsese to maintain the pace and keep your interest. He blends human interest and history in such a manner you are practically transported back for a first person experience of these critical days.

This is the way a DVD should be done. The anamorphic 2.35:1 video is as close to flawless as possible. Every detail that Scorsese put in Gangs of New York jumps out at you. Objectively I found very little difference between the Dolby 5.1 and DTS soundtracks. Each one provided a realistic, full sound field. Each speaker is given the presence it deserves.

The extras in Gangs of New York are among the best I have seen. The Scorsese commentary is detailed both in the making of Gangs of New York and the history of the time. Some outside this city may find his clipped, rapid New York accent hard to follow but I felt right at home. There is also featurettes showing how the Five Corners was reproduced including an interactive 360 ° view of the area. There is even a featurette explaining the actual history of the time and what liberties where taken in this production. Gangs of New York is not only enjoyable it is an important part of American film history.

Review by Doug MacLean of

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