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Gangs of New York

By the time Gangs of New York arrived to theaters a year late in December of 2002, most critics wrote about the film as if it was a near-brilliant circumvention of compromise forced upon the director by his meddlesome antagonist, Miramax kingpin Harvey Weinstein. There are reporters who claim to have seen an earlier three-hour cut that allegedly is the difference between noble failure and masterpiece. But Scorsese vehemently claims that, at 167 minutes, this is his final cut, and he's more than earned the right to be taken at his word. What some critics failed to recognize was that the critical time span playing into Gangs of New York's many flaws wasn't the two years of editing; it was the 30 years of research. This is an over-thought film of second-guessed artistic impulses that have grown cold after being replayed again and again in Scorsese's imagination. There are many bravura sequences in the picture, but they lack the unfettered spontaneity of his best work. This craftsmanship is so glaringly ostentatious because Scorsese has undercut the story of Amsterdam (Leonardo DiCaprio), the now-grown orphan son of slain gang leader, "Priest" Vallon (Liam Neeson), and Bill "The Butcher" Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis), Vallon's murderer, by constructing it as a mythic saga of revenge. Scorsese, with the assistance of his three immensely talented writers (Jay Cocks, Steven Zaillian and Kenneth Lonergan), has imagined the film as a battle of archetypes making capital-letter History. But the story is imbalanced, and its telling muddled. Scenes rarely play to their full duration, and are often chopped up and cut together incongruously. Narration, usually so well-managed by Scorsese, is dropped in intermittently, and often to provide a lyricism otherwise absent in the filmmaking. Meanwhile, his other strength, the evocative use of music, is inconsistent, as well. Such aesthetic collisions are perhaps fitting for a film that is itself a collision of scrupulously researched history and deeply considered themes, but the resulting cacophony drowns out the plight of every character save for Day-Lewis's Cutting. It should come as little surprise that Scorsese allows his affinity for Bill to dwarf Amsterdam's plight, but the price is gladly paid as one enjoys the pleasure of watching Day-Lewis disappear into the character's outsized menace. But DiCaprio can't keep up the end of his bargain, and, when it comes to smuggling his smaller revenge drama into the fabric of this enormous historical fantasia, neither can Scorsese. By ending with the Draft Riot of 1863, Scorsese has bitten off a huge, unexploited chunk of history that should probably have been its own film. As it stands, this one is overstuffed. Miramax Home Entertainment presents Gangs of New York in a vibrant anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a Scorsese commentary, a pair of featurettes on the set design and the costumes, a terrific guided tour of the sets by Scorsese and Ferretti (with optional 360-degree views), a Discovery Channel documentary titled "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York" (34 min.) and a "History of the Five Points" that gives a cursory background of the slum's significance to the city in the 19th Century. There's also a "Five Points Study Guide," which contains an essay by historian Luc Sante and a glossary of the era's terms, the U2 video for "The Hands that Built America," and two trailers. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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