”I grew up in an area that had a similar kind of lifestyle,” Martin Scorsese says in his commentary track on the Gangs of New York DVD. It’s a good reminder of what makes the Manhattan-bred director’s latest look at Gotham street toughs tick – a sublime combination of historical fact and individual flair. From a nostalgic discussion about the challenges of adapting Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book to awkward professions of loyalty to Harvey Weinstein and Michael Ovitz (both of whom were instrumental in bringing the long-planned, long-troubled production to the screen), the personal is a theme that typifies Scorsese’s superior audio commentary as much as it does the film itself.
Still, there’s a not-so-good thing to be said for a movie that can be fully digested even while much of the dialogue is drowned out by its maker’s voice. Yes, Dante Ferretti’s 1800s sets and Sandy Powell’s Victorian costumes add magic to a miniworld of wonder (and both are done great justice in some supplemental documentaries). But the story, in which a serviceable DiCaprio seeks bloody revenge on Day-Lewis’ mesmerizing kingpin while romancing pickpocket Cameron Diaz, comes off as restlessly truncated and emotionally detached – just what tends to alienate both theatergoers and Oscar voters. If only they had had Scorsese whispering his private passions in their ears.