Just two weeks ago I covered the re-release of Goodfellas, and stressed the redundancy of questioning whether it was still as good as a movie as it was when it was initially released in 1990. Meanwhile, last week Buena Vista Home Entertainment re-released their Blu-ray for Gangs of New York, a film whose status is most decidedly not as assured, even among Martin Scorsese's biggest fans.
But even though I planned to do a "Shelf Life" column on the film, it seemed more important to pencil it in for this week's "Making The (Up) Grade," because those who do actually like the film have long-disliked its DVD and Blu-ray iterations, and are probably more interested in knowing if the new release redeems the poor quality of its predecessors. (That said, I reserve the right to revisit Gangs of New York in future weeks to see whether or not my initial love for it proves founded or not.)
What's Already Available: Miramax and BVHE originally released Gangs of New York on DVD July 1, 2003. The set offered anamorphic widescreen presentation of the film and four audio options, including a French-language track and a commentary track by Scorsese. Finally, the single-disc set included six pieces of supplemental content: a "History of Five Points" featurette, a multi-angle exploration of the sets, featurettes about the sets and costume design, a U2 music video "The Hands That Built America," a Discovery Channel special entitled "Uncovering the Real Gangs of New York, and a "Five Points study guide."
Miramax first issued the film on Blu-ray on July 1, 2008, and that release included all of the same content except for the "study guide," plus remastered, high-definition picture and sound.
What's In The New Set: The new set boasts remastered picture and sound and all of the same bonus materials as the 2008 Blu-ray.
What's The Difference In The Movie Itself: The picture and sound quality of the DVD and original Blu-ray were thoroughly and deservedly criticized for being substandard. Sadly, many Miramax films were treated poorly on DVD in terms of presentation and haven't made major qualitative leaps en route to Blu-ray. (This is one of the main reasons why a sale of Miramax's library to another studio could be a great thing – namely, it might produce better home video releases in the future). Thankfully, the video quality and the sound on this new disc is spectacular; watching just the opening battle at Five Points, the color quality and clarity is substantially improved, and the overall image integrity is stronger and sharper.
Further, you really get a sense that Scorsese was trying to make something huge and epic, and the audio presentation bears that out and then some: again in that opening scene, the diegetic drums and the remaining score elements blend seamlessly into the dialogue and sound effects mix, and none of it overpowers the other parts. All in all this is the presentation of the film that people always wanted, and now finally have.
What's The Difference In Everything Else: Well, nothing, but the fact that Scorsese recorded a commentary (albeit seemingly in interview pieces edited together) is reason enough to venture anywhere else on the disc. The other extras are sufficient in adding some entertainment and informational value to the set, but this release really seems to be an apology to fans, or if nothing else, a correction of previous problems, so preserving that content even if there's nothing new is at the very least not a disappointment.
What's The Final Grade: B+. Gangs of New York is, in my opinion, the most purely "Scorsese" movie of the last decade, and that's probably why I really like it. Thankfully, this set really immerses the audience in the world he has created, and gives them enough clarity and detail to be able to examine the meticulous, in-depth work he did to bring the material to life. Ultimately, this may be a purchase primarily for folks who like the film but felt burned by previous editions, but if you missed it in theaters or thought it wasn't great, give this disc a shot, because it really gives you a clear look at what the film is, even if it's not what you want to be looking at.