On its release, Gangs of New York took a beating from many who probably were not expecting what director Martin Scorsese delivered. Certainly this historical fiction is a flawed film, but it has aged well in a mere six years, and seems likely to continue to do so. The film's complexity of period detail—including a massive recreation of 19th Century New York's "Five Points" district—and a number of scenes designed on a large scale give the film considerable epic sweep. Scorsese's historical fantasia, or as he has termed it a kind of "opera," conveys some essential truths about the hardscrabble brutality and corruption of a country and a city in the making.
Taking as his inspiration Herbert Asbury's pulp nonfiction book The Gangs of New York, Scorsese draws on a number of historical themes: the immigrant experience of struggle amidst virulent racism, political corruption (embodied by William soon-to-be-"Boss" Tweed), and the fiery violence upon which America has forged its great cities. It's heady material viewed through a lens of social cynicism; the narrative developed by screenwriters Jay Cocks, Steven Zailian, and Kenneth Lonergan makes reasonably smart choices in giving the historical period dramatic shape. In doing so, they and Scorsese exaggerate (or stylize) for effect, and compress and distort chronological detail for cleaner narrative lines. But it's also clear that each choice has been chewed over and made for artistic reasons: whether or not the choices succeed is, of course, a matter of opinion.
The film opens in 1846 or, more accurately, the 1846 that looms large in the memory of Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo DiCaprio). In a smart turn of phrase, Vallon opens his narration, "Some of it I half-remember. And the rest? The rest I took from dreams." The line helps to give the film some license: the prologue which follows, in which young Irish-American Amsterdam (Cian McCormack) witnesses his father "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson) expire at the hands of rival gang leader Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), is not quite presented as objective reality.
The gang fight between Vallon's Irish "Dead Rabbits" and Cutting's native-born Anglo-Saxon "Natives" gets a typically cinematic staging from Scorsese, with the Dead Rabbits enacting personal and religious ceremonies before striding through the hellish underground of the Old Brewery (a horrid slum for squatters) and up and out into the snow-blanketed cold of lower Manhattan (an infusion of rock music, applied nowhere else in the film, and some eccentric editing are two of Scorsese's less persuasive choices). There, the top-hatted Natives in blue face off against the red-striped Dead Rabbits in a prototypical gang clash with gang colors. In history, it has no direct analog, though it is inspired by an actual riot that took place a decade later. The gangs are historic, but their leaders are invented characters, Cutting based loosely on butcher/gangland figure Bill Poole.
Even when the story moves forward sixteen years into an ostensibly objective storyline set in Amsterdam's present day, we are in Scorsese's point of view as a modern American looking back on history as a distant archetypal memory, a half-forgotten collective dream of our upbringing as a nation. It's an excuse for fudging history, certainly, but a persuasive one in the hands of an artist with a design that's not half-considered. The primary 1862 storyline picks up as Amsterdam, released from Hellgate House of Reform, tosses his Bible in the drink and heads back to the Five Points intent on vengeance. Scorsese can relate to the roiling impulses of a young man schooled in Catholicism (Irish instead of Italian) and born into an awareness of tribal violence. At least in part, faith means God is on one's side in a Holy War for the eternal honor of family and countrymen.
Since Vallon's death, the Dead Rabbits have disbanded, the very name verboten. With the help of old acquaintance Johnny Sirocco (Henry Thomas), Vallon ingratiates himself with the Natives and becomes the trusted protégé to Bill. Meanwhile, a pickpocket and con artist named Jenny Everdeane (Cameron Diaz) catches Vallon's eye. Drama ensues as Vallon begins to feel that Bill's training seductively fills the void of his dead father, and the relationship with Jenny hits the rocks over her past with Bill. Bill's magnetism and power both attract and repulse Vallon, until a dramatic event causes him to mature into a manly self-determination that approaches and morally exceeds his father's leadership in the community.
Though it's difficult fully to accept his petulant and misguided character, DiCaprio plays the tortured Vallon with a focused physical and emotional intensity. The alien period trappings can make DiCaprio and Diaz seem miscast or a bit stilted at times, but the necessary stars acquit themselves admirably, holding their scale relative to the sheer size of the production, instead of receding into its epic-ness. Day-Lewis has no such concerns: his Bill is epic, a force of nature that chews souls along with scenery. A warmup for Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher is indeed an operatic character, one that brings the film's themes of power vividly to life. Day-Lewis rides the ferocious dialogue like devastating tsunamis of psychic energy—how else to play deliciously ripe dialogue like "I'm gonna paint Paradise Square with his blood. Two coats. I'll festoon my bedchamber with his guts"?
Power through fearsome threat is Bill's m.o., wielded in partnership with up-and-coming politician Tweed, of the infamous Tammany Hall. Bill rules with a butcher knife, Tweed with the stilletto ("The appearance of the law must be upheld. Especially while it's being broken"), and Vallon, eventually, with a bread basket, in hopes of uniting the vast, downtrodden Irish immigrant population into a powerful voting block and, if need be, militia. Beyond the local problems of terrible destitution and rigged elections is the national crisis of the Civil War, and a draft that favors the rich while those too poor to buy their ways out take their only option (one efficient shot follows the fresh recruits shepherded onto boats as the latest coffins are unloaded onto the dock).
The tension of the personal and political becomes metaphorically explicit during Bill's uncharacteristic late-night confession, while wrapped in an American flag, to Amsterdam. In part to justify his own instinctive (and gradually reasoned) rule by fear, Bill has a core respect for the ingenuous macho nobility of fearless, self-righteous leadership, expressed in undying honor paid to the departed Priest Vallon. Like many a presidential administration, Bill's American Dream is to plant the Native flag (reading "Beware of foreign influence") at the peak of American power, and mete out his brand of justice while collecting dues ("Everybody owes, everybody pays"). He can respect only a worthy opponent who dares to challenge his ascendance.
Gangs of New York is a film with a great deal of flavor, from the the bars (where one can pay for remaindered liquor with a severed ear during a sing-along of "Finbar Furey") to the period patois (Amsterdam of Jennie: "She's a prim-looking stargazer") . The supporting cast includes John C. Reilly as an easily bought beat cop, Brendan Gleeson as a shrewd Irish man-for-himself with the potential to be more, and Gary Lewis, brilliant as the irritable, thick-skulled attack dog within the Natives. Dante Ferretti's production design is peerless, costumer Sandy Powell establishes much of the film's approach of stylized historic hyperbole, and cinematographer Michael Ballhaus (Goodfellas) turns in bravura camera work.
The full resources of a film that looks a lot like the last of the "if you build it, they will come" epics converge in the climax: an exaggerated recreation of the Draft Riots of 1863 that definitively dwarfs the personal drama beneath greater political forces: the House always wins. There's plenty of interesting historical detail worked into the spaces of the film, but the impact is all in the broad strokes of Scorsese's design: the corresponding coming-of-age stories of three confused and violent adolescents: Amsterdam Vallon, New York City, and America.
If, like me, you skipped the DVD, Disney's Blu-Ray upgrade to Gangs of New York is probably worth the purchase, especially for Scorsese fanatics. Scorsese has repeatedly pooh-poohed the suggestion of a Director's Cut release, and the title's not so mega-popular as to be a prime candidate for double-dipping. However, the picture quality of this transfer—the same not-so-great HD transfer prepared for the standard-def DVD release—leaves something to be desired. Certainly, Blu-Ray offers an improvement on the DVD and some stunning visual moments, but don't ask yourself, "Is it me?" when noticing the noise, edge enhancement, and dirt that dilute the film's visual impact. It's not you; it's the transfer—though once the viewer is immersed in the film's period milieu, the distractions melt away. Audio options are more pleasing, with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and uncompressed PCM 5.1 tracks offered.
The disc comes with the same package of bonus features as on the DVD, beginning with an audio commentary by Martin Scorsese. It's always a pleasure to spend time in the company of the maestro, whose cinematic and historic allusions, while never intimidating, take on the tenor of a master class in epic filmmaking. The director discusses the origins of the film, dating back to the early '70s, the casting of Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz, the infamous wooing of Daniel Day-Lewis, and the gamut of choices that did and didn't make it to the screen, including the sources of Day-Lewis' accent and the never-realized possibility, once upon a time, of original music by The Clash. It goes without saying that Scorsese also discusses the history, the fiction, and how the twain meet. Scorsese sounds more relaxed and less hyperactive than usual, leading to a few gaps in the track, but never for too long.
"History of the Five Points" (13:36) is an EPK-style swath cut through the historical context of the film. Scorsese, DiCaprio, Liam Neeson, Jim Broadbent, and author/historical advisor Luc Sante are on hand to share what stuck in their minds from their research. The more extensive Discovery Channel documentary "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York" (35:14) has considerably more (and perhaps more reliable) information, but it's also constructed to make the film—a promotional partner—look good (another tack: clips from the film). Authoritative source Tyler Anbinder (author of Five Points) participates, as do Scorsese, Day-Lewis, Diaz, Neeson, Sante, Kenneth T. Jackson of the New York Historical Society, anthropologist Brian Ferguson, archaeologist Rebecca Yamin, Ruth Abram of Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and Peter Quinn, author of Banished Children of Eve.
"Set Design" (9:07) covers its titular topic as well as the trickle-down effect on the actors and stunts, with comments by Scorsese, production designer Dante Ferretti, Day-Lewis, DiCaprio, Diaz, Broadbent, Neeson, John C. Reilly, Brendan Gleeson, Gary Lewis, cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, and 2nd unit director for fight scenes Vic Armstrong. "Costume Design" (8:12) follows a similar course, with Scorsese, costume designer Sandy Powell, wardrobe supervisor Paolo Stefano Scalabrino, Day-Lewis, Diaz, and Neeson. The coolest feature is "Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York" (22:31), a walking tour of the massive Cinecittà set with Scorsese and Ferretti. The walk and talk through the streets, down to "the harbor," and into interiors like the "Chinese Pagoda" is endlessly fascinating, as two great talents kibitz.
Lastly, we get U2's Music Video "The Hands That Built America" (4:41), a Teaser Trailer (2:32), and the Trailer (2:32). It's a solid package, but if you already own the DVD, you may wish to think twice. Perhaps one day, we'll get a more special edition, with an upgraded transfer and a look through the fabled cut footage.
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