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A view from the Blu (-ray) on DVDBeaver by Leonard Norwitz


A Little Background     Openers     


    Modus Operandi     The Scorecard:     

Emotive Connection      Audio     Operations    Extras     The Movie     Equipment





Gangs of New York [Blu-ray]


(Martin Scorsese, 2002)







Review by Leonard Norwitz




Blu-ray: Buena Vista Home Entertainment



Region: A

Runtime: 167 min

Chapters: 24

Size: 50 GB

Case: Locking Blu-ray case

Release date: July 1, 2008



Aspect ratio: 2.35:1

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: VC-1



English 5.1 Uncompressed (48 kHz/24-bit); English & French DD 5.1 Surround



English SDH, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, Icelandic



• Audio Commentary with Director Martin Scorsese

• Featurettes:

• Costume Design (08:00)

• Set Design ( 09:12)

• Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York (22:31)

• History of the Five Points (13.33)

• Discovery Channel Special:

• U2 Music Video: The Hands That Built America (04:39)

• Theatrical & Teaser Trailers




The Film:

Long in gestation, high in hopes for Scorsese, who hadn't had a big hit since Goodfellas in 1990 (though I was and remain a fan of Age of Innocence despite the ill-considered entrance of Enya), Gangs of New York was expected to be his breakthrough film – a movie to satisfy audiences, critics and the Academy. (Remember he had not yet won his first Oscar, Raging Bull notwithstanding.) Alas, it was not to be. After a promising, if not dazzling, opening weekend, ticket sales maintained a downward trend, and after four months it still had not recouped its money.

The first time I saw the film in 2002, I was, frankly, a little bewildered, but revisiting the movie on Blu-ray last night, with expectations in perspective, I feel more comfortable with what Scorsese may have been up to, even if he didn't entirely succeed. Gangs of New York is nothing if not an exercise in style, as is what Scorsese is generally about. The problem for me is that there is so much of it: too much exposition, too much narration, too many characters who recognize the adult Vallon for who he is and too few who don't, and too little of any character we get to care about – except perhaps Bill the Butcher, and I doubt that is as intended.

I don't mind that just about every actor has all his or her stops open, for that's just another aspect of the style of the film. The basic flaw, as I see it, is that DiCaprio's character, Amsterdam Vallon, is on a vengeance kick from ten minutes into the story and, while it seems compelling at first blush, it doesn't really hold up: His father is killed in a "fair" fight – which is to say: he sort of asked for it, as did every gang member on either side – so why should we care about Vallon's retribution! I understand that such is the nature of the eternal feud that humans engage in since Genesis, but I don't see that this is the moral of the screenplay. Does it really matter that Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (you gotta love the name!), played with comical menace by Daniel Day-Lewis, is something of a monster among monsters? Isn't everyone in this story except Amsterdam, who takes his father's advice to "never look away" very seriously, a monster? Could anyone living in such a place be else?

It cannot be doubted that America was born out of a penchant for unneighborly violence, and this is likely what Scorsese and screenwriter Jay Cocks are trying to underscore; but I found that the idea gets strangled in the morass of political and social plot points and the contrapuntal romance between DiCaprio and Diaz. Then there's that ending – both the knifeout between Bill and Amsterdam, which is anticlimactic, and the final 15 seconds. At least this time I knew it was coming, and so was prepared. But I still think it's out of place – artistically and otherwise, especially when preceded by another explanation by DiCaprio's voiceover. It should be enough for us to make the connection. Why do filmmakers think the audience is asleep – or is that a rhetorical question?

When the SD DVD came out there was talk that Miramax might release the rumored four-hour cut, but they didn't, nor did they here. If it were less episodic and do without the narration, which it probably wouldn't call for, I wouldn't mind giving it a go.

The Movie : 7
The time is 1846, and while America was going through the growing pains that would eventually erupt in civil war, New York City's Five Points district was having a civil war of its own: a kind of dress rehearsal for things to come. The neighborhood was ruled by gangs – it was what folks lived for, and died of. Scorsese places us in medias res as Bill the Butcher's self-proclaimed "Native Americans" declare the neighborhood ain't fit for the waves of mostly Irish immigrants who have been pouring in of late. The latter have formed themselves into a gang with the unfortunate name of "Dead Rabbits," led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson). Vallon's young son watches in horror as many are slaughtered - most importantly, his father.

Cut to 16 years later, and "Amsterdam" Vallon (DiCaprio) returns to the scene of the crime to take his revenge – not as a thief in the night, he vows at first, but in public for all to see. A killer has to have his code – just as Bill the Butcher (Day-Lewis) did when he killed the priest and outlawed the name of "Dead Rabbits." Bill has since graduated to bigger things: he is now in open collaboration with Boss Tweed and the police; he has a passing acquaintance with the swells in upper Manhattan, but closer to home he is taken with Amsterdam's grit and fighting skills. As we expect, Amsterdam gets close enough to Bill to dispatch him at any moment of his choosing, but, like Hamlet, he hesitates, in part because, unlike Hamlet, he finds power attractive, and also because he is confused by Bill's public and privately held respect for Vallon's father, something about which he never is able to comprehend. Meanwhile, forces gather that threaten to swallow Bill and Amsterdam and everyone else into oblivion.


Image: 7/9
(I have a new scoring system for the Image in order to make the first number rationalize with the other scores): The first number indicates a relative level of excellence compared to other Blu-ray DVDs on a ten-point scale. The second number places this image along the full range of DVDs, including SD 480i.

Returning to the question of style, the Blu-ray image is perhaps too much of a good thing, for now we can see clearly what we might not have noticed in the theatre: the lighting, which is not supposed to be so apparent as to bring our attention to it. The smaller your screen them more this will become apparent – such is the liability of high definition in respect to some feature films.

There are scenes exquisitely and naturally rendered. Others show a respectable and appropriate grain. I downgraded the score because of an occasional narrow vertical flare, sometimes light, sometimes darker, on some frames, as if the print itself was damaged. If so, I commend Buena Vista for not cropping the film to accommodate it; on the other hand, these could have been repaired in the digital domain.















Audio & Music: 7/8
Again the question of style: Why else, I ask, is Di Caprio's voiceover narration sound cavernous, especially in the opening minutes – all the more so in its uncompressed 5.1 mix? It's just another eyebrow raising decision. Aside from that nagging niggle, all else is clear and dynamic as required.

Operations: 7
Despite Buena Vista's having a hand in the distribution we can be thankful that the number of previews are few (only 5). Menu operations are straightforward, though it does take awhile to return to the bonus list from any of the extra features using the Top Menu. I recommend advancing the chapter. The subtitle translations are curious for what is there Scandinavian languages) and what is not (Spanish, Chinese, Korean). Yellow subtitles - an eyesore.

Extras: 6
The Extra Features for the Blu-ray edition are the same as for the 2-disc Collector's Edition SD from 2003, all of which remain in passable 480i format. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend the 35-minute Discovery channel featurette for its look at the fascinating historical background from which the feature film takes much of its social and political substance. Though, curiously, it makes the movie seem all the more episodic, as it attempts to embrace every fact and factoid of the period in its narrative. Scorsese is always an entertaining raconteur, especially about his favorite subject. In Exploring the Sets of Gangs of New York, he and the set designer walk about what is left of the set and reminisce.



Bottom line: 7
While flawed, Martin Scorsese's look at America's violent growing pains is worthy if only for that reason. But more than that is Daniel Day-Lewis in another memorable characterization and the historical look of the film, which is always gorgeous (despite my advisory about the lighting at times).

Leonard Norwitz
June 22, 2008








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