Gangs Of New York

Gangs Of New York (2003)
Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cast: Daniel Day-Lewis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Featurettes, Music Video, Teaser Trailer

"Gangs Of New York" is a surprising movie in many ways. While Martin Scorsese has shown us syncopated violent moments in his movies before, no film of his has been so constantly brutal and vicious throughout – almost like a tapestry of violence. Also, the story of the gangs of New York is very surprising as I have to admit it is a part of history that I was not familiar with when I first saw the film, and that I was surprised to learn about these events in this fashion. These gangs were an integral part in the Big Apple's infancy and have most definitely shaped the city and its inhabitants as a whole to this day.

In the mid-1800s New York was a giant melting pot. People from all over the world were still pouring into the country and their first destination was, inevitably, New York. Here however, the cultural mix created a variety of social tensions and problems, which often resulted in open violence. Gangs were formed by the people in order to survive the harshness and cruelties of living in New York. Of course, given the different ethnic backgrounds, these gangs had different ideals and values, and as a result feuds ensued constantly between many of these gangs. Feuds that were reminiscent of bloody battles, actually.

The movie focuses on two such gangs, the "Natives," who consisted of US-born citizens who felt threatened by the onpour of immigrants from all over the world, and the "Dead Rabbits," a gang of Irishmen, who ranked on the lowest rung of the social ladder during the time – lower even than the black population. Lead by Bill "The Butcher" Cutter (Daniel Day-Lewis) the Natives rule the streets of New York's largest ghetto – lower Manhattan, or the Five Points, as it was known back then. Like a dictator, Cutter lawlessly ruled the streets with an iron fist, butchering everyone in his way, friend, foe, official, politician… anyone. One day in a clash of the gangs, Cutter kills "The Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson), the leader of the Dead Rabbits and thus once again confirms his status in the Five Points. Vallon's son watches the incident and is dead-set on revenge. After 16 years in a work house he (Leonardo DiCaprio) returns to the Five Points in hopes to destroy the Butcher, but the closer he gets to him, the more he is also attracted by his power, and the benefits he reaps having become the Butcher's right-hand man.

"Gangs Of New York" is a truly amazing movie. It is exhilarating and suspenseful, yet atmospheric and sobering. Martin Scorsese once again plays all his cards right, creating a world that is too real to be fantastical in a sense, yet too unreal to be real at times. With the breath-taking production design and his wonderful cast, he literally hypnotizes the viewer and sucks us into his canvas. Running an ample 167 minutes, the film takes its time, setting up the premise, establishing characters, building the story and the culminating an a climax that leaves the viewer speechless in its sheer scope and its catastrophic details. Ultimately, I think, it is impossible, not to be impressed by this film.

It would be wrong however to forget to say at least a word about the cast. Daniel Day-Lewis is putting in what may be the best performance in his life – better even than his performance in "There Will Be Blood" in my personal opinion. He is frighteningly maniacal and diabolical, turning into a completely unpredictable… animal. Leonardo DiCaprio has also shown that he is not intent on surfing the "titanic"-wave by picking a series of gritty parts over the last years and you have to hand it to him once again that he is one talented actor – a thing he has proven ever since "Gilbert Grape" many years ago. He's putting in a gritty and sometimes savage performance here that is fully convincing and rich in emotions.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment is presenting "Gangs Of New York" on Blu-Ray here, including all the extras that were previously found on the 2-disc DVD version. Having encoded the bonus materials in standard definition, Buena Vista Home Entertainment has been able to keep it all on a single disc here, however.

The movie itself is presented in its original 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio in a 1080p high definition transfer that is wonderfully rich. Free of blemishes, specks or defects the image also shows no overt grain but retains the movie's original gritty look at any given moment. The level of detail and more importantly the color reproduction in this transfer is mesmerizing, bringing to life this wonderful production in all its gutter glory – excuse the pun. Whether it's the snow awash in blood, the warmly candle-lit interiors, the bright daylight scenes, the transfer always renders colors with a vibrancy that the DVD could never capture in the same measure. The black levels improve on that even more be creating shadows that are pitch black when needed, yet filled with subtle details in others when asked for. Michael Ballhaus' camera work is once again a highlight of the move as he frames the image with wonderful details. Angles and movement of the camera are always designed for maximum impact, helping to turn "Gangs Of New York" into a feast for the senses.
I did notice a strange artifact in this presentation however which rendered some color inconsistencies an the left hand side of the screen, right along the border of the frame. I am not sure where this problem stemmed from but it was certainly noticeable in a number of scenes.

An uncompressed PCM audio track accentuates the audio presentation of the movie, giving it the weight it deserves. Absolutely fantastic in its rendering of discrete channels the track is every bit as jaw dropping as the visuals. The frequency response is wide with a bass extension well below 25Hz, making sure to work that subwoofer. High ends are also reproduced without problems, creating a presentation that is balanced and free of distortion at any time. Reproducing the original master track from the film, it is hardly surprising that this audio presentation has an impressive dynamic range that reproduces every moment of the film with proper accuracy and subtlety for subdued moments and thunderous impact.

As mentioned before all the extras from the DVD version have been brought over here including the running length commentary track by Martin Scorsese. This commentary is simply required listening. You cannot afford to miss all the things Scorsese has to say about his movie, about the people he worked with, and the historic background the film is based on. Full of valuable insight, information and technical tidbits as well, the track is a treasure trove for every film fan, just as you would expect from an accomplished and outspoken filmmaker as Scorsese.

The disc also comes with a full Discovery Channel documentary on the subject of the "Gangs Of New York," covering many of the historic aspects for the film and the events, even showcasing images of the real people we meet in the film. Again, this is a must-see feature that you cannot afford to miss.

Behind-the-scenes featurettes on the costumes, the set design and many other aspects are also part of the release, as well as an exploration of the Five Points sets used for the film.

The release is rounded out by the U2 music video "The Hands That Built America" and the movie's teaser trailer.

"Gangs Of New York" is still every bit as impressive as it was when it was first released in theaters. It is another nod by Scorsese to the city he loves. It does not intent to be a history lesson really and as such took some liberties with the real events that inspired the story. Nonetheless, the movie feels authentic and excels in any aspect imaginable. It has received a glorious treatment on this Blu-Ray Disc and is a must-see for any film fan.