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Gangs of New York is epic. The words “sweeping” and “spectacle” probably ought to be used too. Its sheer size and ambition earn it a recommendation and 10 Oscar nominations (though no statues). There is room for criticism on the densely-packed screen, but not much.

The new Miramax 2-DVD set has lots of extras focusing on the history behind the movie and the amazing sets that were built for it, but not nearly enough information on Daniel Day-Lewis’ amazing performance.

Big Revenge

 2-DVD set good at history and set design
2-DVD set good at history, set design
 
The film is set in a young New York City divided along many lines by gangs. Protestants fight Catholics, natives fight newcomers, political rivalries spill into the streets. Even competing fire brigades fight for the right to extinguish burning buildings.

The four-year-old boy who saw “Bill the Butcher” (Daniel Day-Lewis) kill his father has grown into Amsterdam Vallon (Leonardo Di Caprio). He has returned to get revenge. Amsterdam bides his time — for an hour and a half of screen time — until the day he can pick up his father’s banner against Bill Cutting.

The big revenge scene does come, but it is contrivedly interrupted by the draft riots of 1863, which end the film.

The New Yorkers

Bill “the Butcher” is quite a colorful character, thanks mostly to Day-Lewis’ outstanding interpretation. The only thing his adversaries understand, he says, is fear, so his subjects live under a reign of terror. His hobby is butchery, so he is often giving cuts of meat to favored peasants and sycophants. He’s also the physical arm of the Tammany Hall body politic, a “benevolent” lodge corrupted under William Marcy Tweed (Jim Broadbent).

By comparison, Di Caprio’s Amsterdam isn’t nearly as interesting. He narrates and watches, but he doesn’t actually do much until the end.

There are also a host of secondary characters, each well enough rounded. Cameron Diaz is Jenny, a pickpocket who steals Amsterdam’s heart. Broadbent is featured prominently as Boss Tweed, as are Brendan Gleeson and John C. Reilly as two loyal followers of Amsterdam’s father.

Living, Breathing, Bleeding

The real star of the movie is production designer Dante Ferretti, working under Scorsese’s careful eye. Together, they bring this paean to New York to life. Their obsessive attention to detail — particularly costumes, sets, and props — sums up most of the design, but not all of it. Day-Lewis’ accent, for example, and his historically slangy dialogue adds to the vibrant authenticity of Gangs of New York. The result is something amazing: a living, breathing, bleeding portrait of old New York, as colorful and violent as the old west.

Picture and Sound

It’s becoming more difficult to rate picture and sound on new DVDs because most of them are impeccably crisp. So few have bad transfers that it’s only worth mentioning when a DVD isn’t picture perfect.

Gangs of New York is picture perfect. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound gives crisp dialogue and rich, full music (DTS is also available). The movie is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio (2.35:1). Rather than cram too much information onto the disc (which would increase compression and decrease picture quality), the movie is presented on two discs, each with about half of the movie and half of the extras.

DVD Extras

The DVD has lots of extra features: two trailers, three featurettes, a music video, and an audio commentary, not to mention a few odds and ends.

The DVD highlights the history behind Gangs of New York, although what I was most interested in was Day-Lewis’ almost mythical performance. Rumors about his immersion in his character (yes, Scorsese called him “Bill” and not “Daniel” on the set), along with stories of his stint as a cobbler in Italy make the man seem like a mad genius. Although Day-Lewis is interviewed for some of the featurettes, his performance and personality only get the odd passing mention.

But if history is what you’re looking for, the Gangs DVD is not to be missed. Luc Sante is one of the key historians behind the film, and he is featured prominently, both in on-camera interviews and as the author of the “Five Points Study Guide.”

The one not-to-be-missed extra feature is called “Exploring the Sets,” which reveals how much work and raw acreage went into creating the sets for this film. Several blocks of old New York were created and were pre-lit and ready-to-use by Scorsese’s crews.

The audio commentary by Scorsese is a mixed bag. He speaks with a humble-seeming mild tenor, yet the authority he conveys is commanding. I could listen to him talk about movies all day. And yet as a whole, the commentary is disappointing. Some of what he says in the featurettes is repeated on the commentary track, turning what seemed insightful into a mere sound bite. There are also long gaps between comments (some of which originated on NPR’s Fresh Air), and occasionally the comments have nothing to do with the action on-screen. The commentary track should be the crown jewel on a DVD, but in this case the jewel needed some polishing.

Menus

When done right, DVD menus are practically invisible, as is the case with Gangs of New York. There is a simple animation of a dark American flag flapping that lasts only a second or two, and then you can choose your selection. Too many DVDs have overdesigned menus that just get in the way of the features on the disc, so kudos to Miramax for getting it right.

Conclusion

Gangs of New York was one of the best movies of 2003, and that’s reason enough to give the DVD a look, particularly if you missed it at theaters. The features on the new Miramax DVD are skewed a little too much toward the history behind Gangs of New York for my tastes, but if that’s what fascinates you, Gangs of New York is a good buy.