GANGS OF NEW YORK
Film review by Gordon Justesen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson
Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis, Cameron Diaz, Jim Broadbent, John C.
Reilly, Henry Thomas, Brendan Gleeson
Director: Martin Scorsese
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, PCM 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Features: See Review
Length: 167 Minutes
Release Date: July 1, 2008
took the father, now I’ll take the son. You tell young Vallon I’m gonna
paint Paradise Square with his blood…TWO COATS!”
When I reviewed Minority
Report, I stated that it was indeed the best film of 2002. However, there
was a week or two left until 2003, and I had not yet seen Martin Scorsese’s Gangs
of New York, which ended up taking the title away from Steven Spielberg’s
sci-fi masterpiece. I learned a good lesson, which is to wait until the very end
of the year to state your best film picks.
of New York is a film
experience of the most engaging sort. To watch it is to be practically engulfed
in the surroundings and amongst the characters. It is one of those rare period
epics that does nothing short of making you feel like you are in the exact time
and place of the events. No other film of this kind has mastered this art so
beautifully like Scorsese’s film, which like so many of his films, will be
remembered for years to come.
your name, boy?”
The film is a
breathtaking account of a pivotal moment for this country and everyone living in
it. Set in New York City from the 1840s to the 1860s, a time when the city was
perhaps at its most corrupt, where slimy politicians and disreputable street
barons seem to go hand in hand. Anyone who was a pure native of America was more
than likely racist, spitting at any immigrant who came into their sight.
Added to this, was
the fateful drafting of innocent civilians, and mostly immigrants, to fight in
the Civil War. President Lincoln’s tactics were so despised by the town
leaders that even in the midst of reenactment plays, the crowd would indulge in
shouting at the actor portraying the President. This important time in our
nation’s history is the backdrop for the film’s center story, which involves
the journey of a young man in search of vengeance.
blood stays on the blade, son.”
The real story
begins in 1846, as a street war is about to ignite between two gangs, the Irish
Dead Rabbits and the American Natavists. Leading the Irish group is the fearless
Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson), who keeps his young son close by as he and the
fellow Irishmen march to the streets. Leading the natives is the bloodthirsty
and equally fearsome William Cutting, a.k.a. Bill the Butcher (Daniel
Day-Lewis), an intimidating presence who has fought for years to keep the Five
Points rid of anything that isn’t pure American. Bill illustrates his harsh
beliefs to the fullest when he takes the priest down by a blow of the blade,
even as the son is at his dead father’s side.
Twenty years pass,
as the son, Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), has grown into a young man. After
spending the better part of his childhood in a reform school, Amsterdam is
released with only one thought in mind, that of revenge. He intends to structure
an elaborate plot to get back at Bill, which will end up being much more
difficult than expected.
of the Five Points is a finger. When I close my hand, it becomes a fist.”
Returning to the
fear-laden Five Points, Amsterdam catches Bill’s eye. He is so impressed by
the young man defending himself, that he soon takes Amsterdam under his wing.
Bill wastes no time in exposing Amsterdam to the way things maneuver and operate
in the Five Points. The Butcher is nothing short of the top dog, as he virtually
controls everything in the Five Points. He gets his power through keeping the
charismatically corrupt Boss Tweed (Jim Broadbent), as Mayor, by making sure
that each member of the gang puts in a vote. It isn’t before long that the
young man is grown used to corruption himself, as he becomes Bill’s personal
bookie, as well as bodyguard.
is slightly thrown off guard when he unexpectedly falls for Jenny Everdeane
(Cameron Diaz), a local pickpocket. He is later stunned to find out that Jenny
had at one point supplied various services for The Butcher, which doesn’t sit
so well with him. Matters are even more intense when Amsterdam’s only friend
in the Five Points, Johnny (Henry Thomas) discovers their affair, since Johnny
has a good deal of affection for Jenny, as well.
know how I stayed alive this long, all these years…fear.”
What makes this
such a great film is the fact that there is never a dull moment. For nearly
three hours, this solid epic triumph manages to include moments that are good,
great, and greater. Following the turning point of the movie, where Bill the
Butcher discovers who the young man really is, Gangs
of New York evolves into an unshakable power-fuse of a movie. Bill becomes
more blood hungry than ever before, and Amsterdam puts his plan into play by
gathering at his desire a gang of his own, resembling his father’s legacy.
You’ve gotta hand
it to Mr. Scorsese, he certainly is the most under-appreciated filmmaker of our
time. Having been nominated for Best Director countless times, for the likes of Raging
Bull, The Last Temptation of Christ, and GoodFellas
(for which he especially deserving), you’d think he would have merited some
compensation for what is truly his most pivotal masterpiece to date.
God I died a true American.”
As for Daniel
Day-Lewis, this is nothing short of a cinematic acting milestone. He fuels the
role of Bill the Butcher with such flawless authenticity, to the point that you
totally forget you’re watching Daniel Day-Lewis. Acquiring a menacing accent
loaded with rage, Day-Lewis does a remarkable job at making Bill the Butcher a
larger than life figure. Each time I’ve watched the movie, I feel a sheer
feeling of intimidation by his presence, which is a hard feeling to get from any
kind of performance. His incredible work was indeed the best performance I saw
in any film of that year. It might as well go on record as one of the best
acting pieces ever.
The year was
also a good one for Leonardo DiCaprio, as the talented actor managed pull in two
great performances (in addition, his con artist role in Catch Me If You Can).
Many reviewers didn’t seem too much enthralled by his performance here, but
quite frankly, I think it’s the best one he’s given yet. DiCaprio’s
performance is solid in a laid back sense. The story is told from his
perspective, even as he, like every character of the movie, is overshadowed by
Bill the Butcher. DiCaprio does hold his own ground here, acting more with
expression and emotion, which he does superbly.
of New York, a film that was
years in the making, is definitive proof that great things come to the audience
that waits for it. Martin Scorsese, who is a master filmmaker of many sorts,
strikes an outstanding career high with this beautiful and personal masterpiece,
which is indeed the Best Film of 2002.
Michael Bauhaus' cinematography is top notch in this film, and renders beautifully on DVD. There may be more detail in this movie than any other Martin Scorsese film, and that's saying something. Images are crystal clear throughout, and the many darker scenes and crowd sequences ring out with striking contrast and colors. The special edition DVD release had to split the movie over two discs to avoid unnecessary compression, but Blu-ray capabilities give you all the visual experience and more on a single disc.
With a choice of Dolby Digital or uncompressed 5.1 tracks, the audio for this Blu-ray is stunning. Dynamic range is stronger than ever, and the fight scenes really open up the full surround experience. Spoken words are clear, and the music by Howard Shore really accentuates the period experience.
All the extras are
here, but on a single disc instead of a double release. It includes
commentary from Martin Scorsese, four informative featurettes; “Exploring the
Sets of Gangs of New York”, a costume design featurette, as well as a set
design, and “History of the Five Points.” There is also a
trailer and a teaser for the film, plus a Discovery Channel special, “Uncovering
the Real Gangs of New York”, a Five Points Study Guide, complete with street
vocabulary, and a music video for the powerful U2 song, “The Hands That Built
America”. A terrific package!
Gangs of New York is a newfound classic of contemporary cinema, in addition to being a beautiful recreation of a harsh time for the country that is brought to life through passionate directing by Martin Scorsese and a milestone piece of acting by Daniel Day-Lewis.