Even great artists stumble on occasion. Arguably America's best living filmmaker, Martin Scorsese had grand ambitions for his historical epic 'Gangs of New York'. Long fascinated by organized (and disorganized) crime and its roots in American culture, the director claims to have been planning an adaptation of Herbert Asbury's 1928 non-fiction book on-and-off since stumbling across it in early 1970. The material, an account of gang violence and political corruption in Civil War-era New York City, certainly seems right up his alley. Afforded a mammoth budget approaching $100 million (his largest at the time) and free reign to recreate 19th Century New York on the famed Cinecittà studio lot in Rome, the project was finally green-lit for release in 2002. The resulting film tells a sprawling narrative on a sweeping scale, with stunning production values and an A-List cast. It's also something of a huge mess.
The story begins with the Battle of Five Points in 1846, where bands of rival gangs have aligned themselves into two camps warring for control of their miserable slum. The self-proclaimed "Native Americans" (chiefly White Anglo Saxon stock born in the country) led by Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) face off against immigrants (primarily Irish) led by Priest Vallon (Liam Neeson) in a bloody conflict involving knives, bricks, bats, and other blunt instruments in the city streets. Bill wins, brutally. Jumping ahead 16 years, Vallon's son (Leonardo DiCaprio), having spent his formative years hardening his resolve in a House of Reform, returns to the area seeking vengeance for his father. Now going by the moniker Amsterdam (real subtle there, Marty), the young man allows himself to be taken under Bill's wing to learn about his operation and get close to the man, only to find his feelings conflicted by his growing admiration for father-figure Bill and a shared romantic interest in comely pickpocket Jenny (Cameron Diaz).
This all occurs against a backdrop of rampant corruption centered around William "Boss" Tweed (Jim Broadbent) and his Tammany Hall cronies, who have their hands deep in organized crime's pockets and run the police and fire brigades as nothing more than their own savage gangs on the city payroll. All the while, escalating racial tension in the city has been inflamed by implementation of the country's first military draft, and will culminate in the Draft Riots of 1863, in which huge mobs overrun Manhattan destroying everything in their wake.
Daniel Day-Lewis is an absolute force of nature as Bill. It's another astounding performance in a career filled with them. He swallows up any scene he's in. Less impressive is DiCaprio, still trying to shake off his pretty boy image by beefing up and affecting an unconvincing "Oirish" accent. Don't get me wrong, DiCaprio is usually a fine actor who has capably carried other movies; this just isn't his shining moment. Diaz is flat-out miscast and is frankly awful in her role.
The movie certainly has a lot going on. That's both an asset and a liability. The scale of the picture is suitably epic, with amazing production design and costumes. Scorsese does an excellent job capturing the atmosphere of general anarchy dominating the age. The various themed gangs with their odd names (the Dead Rabbits, the Bowery Boys, the Plug Uglies, the Shirt Tails, etc.) and coordinated outfits are both menacing and strangely fantastical at the same time (in some ways, the picture is reminiscent of 'The Warriors' in its crazily surreal depiction of inner city crime). The story deals with many important themes, and the director orchestrates several set-pieces of enormous scope and visionary artistry.
And yet, at the end of it all, the whole thing feels unfocused and disjointed. The script is too talky, with clunky voiceover narration attempting to patch over gaps in the story. At just shy of three hours in length, there's a lack of momentum, and far too much emphasis placed on the uninteresting romance between Amsterdam and Jenny. Scenes of little consequence are allowed to drag on without reason, while others that would seem important are skimmed over and cut short. On top of it all is one of the worst musical scores ever recorded for a motion picture (Howard Shore must have stretched himself too thin between 'Lord of the Rings' installments), capped by an especially treacly and mood-breaking pop ballad by U2 as soon as the end credits come up.
'Gangs of New York' is a movie that reaches for great things, and has moments of genuine greatness within it, but on the whole never pulls together. It's a big disappointment from Martin Scorsese. Fortunately, the director would bounce back to form with his next pair of features, 'The Aviator' and 'The Departed'.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
When 'Gangs of New York' was released on Blu-ray in the United States by Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Disney), the disc scored a very poor video rating on this site. As word started to circulate that French distributor M6 Video had issued their own Blu-ray edition with a different and reportedly superior transfer, a comparison seemed to be in order.
The packaging doesn't specify region coding, but the feature film portion of the French disc is Region A compatible. However, the bonus features are encoded in PAL format and will not fully work in an American Blu-ray player. The movie begins playback immediately upon loading (no forced trailers or promos), but annoyingly defaults to the French dub track until manually changed. The disc has both a top menu and pop-up menus, all written in French text and rather awkwardly designed so that it's often difficult to tell which selection has been highlighted.
Now this is a conundrum. The American Blu-ray disc looks just awful. It's smothered with heavy-handed Digital Noise Reduction that wipes away detail and leaves the picture frequently smeary, then coated with nasty edge enhancement that causes electronic halos around nearly everything. In importing the French release, my fear was that M6 Video might have simply licensed Disney's poor master and the results would be identical. While that doesn't appear to be the case, 'Gangs of New York' still doesn't look very good at all.
First things first, there are several tell-tale signs that the French disc is not sourced from the same video master as the American Blu-ray. For one, the movie has French text overlays during scenes that require on-screen descriptors. Where the American version says "16 Years Later," the French version says "16 ans plus tard." The text is not player-generated, and very clearly appears to be part of the film source. In addition, there is a scratch on the print at time code 14:56 that's not present on the U.S. edition, yet the American copy has more speckles and other minor film damage. Color quality is very similar overall, but flesh tones in Disney's transfer are a touch pinkish and those in the M6 transfer a bit more yellow (of the two, I'd side with M6). Finally, the French disc has a miniscule amount of image cropped around the edges of the frame; I'd never have noticed without a direct comparison of the two copies, and minor framing difference like this are not unexpected when two separate telecine transfers are involved. All of this would seem to indicate that M6 did their own video transfer from film elements created for the French theatrical release.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer (again presented in the movie's 2.35:1 theatrical aspect ratio) seems to have less DNR problems than its American counterpart. (Note that I said less; I didn't say that it had none.) This is evident from the Miramax logo at the beginning, which is displayed over a gray background with a faint crosshatch pattern. That pattern is more distinct in the French transfer. When we get to the very first shot of the movie, a close-up of Liam Neeson's nose, there is mild film grain visible there on the French disc, but no grain at all on the American. Throughout the movie, the M6 transfer has better detail, with facial features that appear less mushy. However, detail overall is still only mediocre, and the image continues to be plagued by smeariness during fast action and camera movements. Once again, there are weird artifacts where background grain will freeze in place while the rest of the objects in the frame continue to move normally (which real film grain would never do). These issues occur in the same places on both copies.
Most distressingly, the edge enhancement artifacts are still there, and in all the exact same spots. The amplitude of the ringing may be slightly less on the French disc during some scenes, but for the most part it looks identical. When Amsterdam hugs the priest before leaving the Hellgate House of Reform, there's a thick, glowing halo around the priest's hat on the American copy, and there it is again looking just the same on the French copy. It's like that all through the movie, the same on both editions.
I'm at a loss to explain how these two separate transfers could be so different in some respects, yet have many of the same problems in the same places. It's just too much to be coincidental. My first assumption might be that these artifacts were endemic to the source, perhaps introduced during a Digital Intermediate stage of post-production (before the text overlays), in which case they're a permanent part of the movie and not the fault of either home video transfer at all. Before I could get too comfortable with that theory, I was informed by a reliable source that 'Gangs of New York' didn't use a DI, and that the 35mm theatrical release prints were free of this sort of edge ringing.
At present, I have no idea who's really at fault. All I can say for certain is that the American Blu-ray looks like garbage, and the French import Blu-ray looks slightly less like garbage, but still not particularly good.
As near as I can tell, the French disc's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track sounds identical to the PCM 5.1 on the American release. Since both audio formats are bit-for-bit identical to the original master, that only makes sense. For that reason, I'll just repeat what I said about the American disc's soundtrack here.
The mix has nice bass thump and impact, especially the pounding cannon fire during the climax. Sound effects such as clanging knives and other metallic weapons are sharply recorded, and gun shots have a satisfying crack. Dialogue is always clear and intelligible, and even shifts directionally across the front soundstage from time to time (rare in modern movies). Surround usage is only moderately aggressive, but decidedly picks up during the Battle of Five Points and Draft Riot sequences. The soundtrack exhibits pleasing spaciousness and fidelity in both quiet and loud scenes alike.
Any disappointment I may have stems directly from the movie itself, not its audio presentation on Blu-ray. 'Gangs of New York' has a surprisingly bland and uninspired sound design, with a lousy musical score and countless scenes that are just sonically dull. That isn't the Blu-ray's fault, but I certainly won't be pulling this disc off the shelf when I want an audio demo.
The French Blu-ray only carries over a few of the bonus features found on the American edition. Unfortunately, the video for the Discovery Channel featurette and the U2 music video are encoded in Standard-Def PAL format and will not function in an American Blu-ray player. When selected, they will only play back with audio over a black screen.
'Gangs of New York' may not be the masterpiece that it set out to be, but the film is still a notable footnote in Martin Scorsese's career and has many worthy elements that merit viewing. Unfortunately, the French Blu-ray is only marginally better than the downright terrible American release. While a small improvement, it still doesn't look very good. Only the most die-hard of fans will want to spend the extra money to import it.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.