Spanning four decades, Sergio Leone's final film tells the story of David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and his Jewish pals, chronicling their childhoods on New York's Lower East Side in the 1920s, through their gangster careers in the 1930s, and culminating in Noodles' 1968 return to New York from self-imposed exile, at which time he learns the truth about the fate of his friends and again confronts the nightmare of his past. Leone's film is both a criticism of gangster-film mythology and a continuation of the director's exploration of the issues of time and history, while the violence and gore that frequent the first half of the film turn into a sad elegy about wasted lives and lost love.
As I sat on my couch re-watching 'Once Upon A Time in America' for this review, the thought kept coming to mind, 'With big stars and an amazing director, this type of film would never be made today.' It's reported that Martin Scorsese had to fight endlessly just to get his three-hour cut of 'The Wolf of Wall Street' on the big screen, so how much more would one have to fight to get a four-hour film out there? Then I realized something – of course we'd never see this type of film on the big screen these day; Sergio Leone couldn't even get it on American screens back in 1984, so we'd really never get something like this today.
When 'Once Upon A Time in America' first started playing at film festivals in early 1984, Leone's cut ran north of four hours in length. It was praised, yet Warner Bros. brought in "the assistant editor of 'Police Academy'" (according to James Woods) to trim it down to 139 minutes for its theatrical cut. As you would expect, with nearly half of the film being removed, it was a flop and critical nightmare. After Leone's death, a 229-minute "director's cut" was compiled by the producers and Leone's family that featured as much of the director's original cut as they could find. Over time, more of the original footage has been found, so this new "extended director's cut" runs 251 minutes and is said to be the closest we'll ever get to seeing the filmmaker's original version of the film.
I hate the overuse of the word epic because it has taken away from the integrity of the grand word, but epic is the proper word to describe 'Once Upon A Time in America.' This mobster drama is all encompassing, telling the full story of one man's life in New York. The narrative is insane, constantly jumping around from three different periods in his life, but it absolutely works. The reason for it is imperative to the overall film, which is why it's appalling that it was altered for the theatrical cut. As fluid as the narrative flows in this new cut, I can't imagine how the entirely linear theatrical cut kept the momentum of the story moving. Obviously, it didn't, which is why the film was a failure.
Robert De Niro plays the lead character, Noodles, during the two adult portions of the character's timeline. The film kicks off with middle-age Noodles involved in some tense mobster moments. The wild storytelling perfectly pans out in a completely unconventional manner. We see Noodles in danger, but we don't know why. Nothing is revealed for a very long time. In fact, only a few short lines of dialog are uttered in the first 20 minutes of the film. It literally takes us hours to find out what is going on during the first 40 minutes of the film. No filmmaker in their right mind would ever consider starting the movie this way, but Leone did and it's absolutely brilliant.
After 37 minutes of jumping between Noodles as a middle-age man and old man, the film jumps back to his childhood. We see many of the moments that molded Noodles and his friends as the men that they would be become – for better or worse. Even though I didn't grow up in the early 1900s, personally, this is the portion of the film that I can connect with the most. No matter the time period that you grew up in, so long as you can remember your childhood well, you'll recognize how much the screenplay truly nails childhood and adolescence. 'Once Upon A Time' literally takes its time establishing these main characters. They're developed so strongly that despite them being mobsters, thieves and eventually murderers, you still root for them. You've seen the good in them. You know that they're just as capable of doing good as they are of doing bad, only (most of them) are mostly good. Especially with Noodles, he only seems to do bad things when, one, the job calls for it and, two, when he's backed into a corner – be it a physical corner or an emotional corner.
'Once Upon A Time In America' is an all-around perfect film. De Niro gives a stellar performance alongside James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern and many others. Even the young cast, which includes a very young Jennifer Connelly, is top-notch. The writing is genius, highly detailed and unforgettable. The direction is consistent, focused and, for other filmmakers, something to be studied and applied. The director's cut was flawless and the extended director's cut is even more so. Leone's masterpiece is worth owning and re-watching more now than ever.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Warner Bros. is releasing the Extended Director's Cut of 'Once Upon A Time In America' in two packages. For this review, I was sent the single-disc release that includes a BD-50 disc in a blue eco-Elite keepcase that features new cover art. This release only contains three special features: a 20-minute excerpt from a documentary about Leone and two of the film's original trailers – but the other Blu-ray release features a little bit more. If you opt for the two-disc Collector's Edition release, then you'll get this same disc with the addition of a commentary by film historian/critic Richard Schickel, a second disc containing the 1984 theatrical edition (which I'd really like to see), Digital HD copies, and special packaging that contains a 32-page booklet with photos, production notes and a letter written by Martin Scorsese. Take your pick and choose wisely.
'Once Upon A Time In America' features a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode in a 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which marks this as the only of Leone's films to not be shot in a wide ratio. The majority of the footage from the previous director's cut has been wonderfully remastered. All of that content is almost entirely free of aging flaws. There isn't a solitary scratch and there aren't any specs or runs. The only flaw that I could find with the previously remastered footage are some large fibers in the bottom of the frame during several shots in De Niro and Woods' final scene together. DNR is lightly applied throughout, but the majority of the film doesn't require the help. No edge enhancement is used.
One thing to remember when watching the film is that, with nearly half of the film featuring footage that was found in various reel collections across the globe, the quality of the footage isn't always consistent. I estimate that 75 percent of the film comes from well-preserved negatives that result in high quality remastering, 15 percent comes from moderate footage that is more than acceptable, and 10 percent is the newly added material that, although remastered, is still highly flawed. A paper is included with the Blu-ray that explains that this new footage was pulled from "discarded strips of working positives which were printed for reference only." Do not expect this new material to match the quality of the rest of the film. The color is highly faded and contrast is extremely blown out. The included paper features screenshots of the old vs. new transfers, but doesn't show examples of those highly flawed portions that are exclusively found in this release.
'Once Upon A Time In America' has received a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio upgrade that's a bit deceptive. The only part of the mix to actually utilize all channels is the music. Aside from that, the rest of the mix is focused in the front. Dialog, gun shots, off-screen effects – each of those elements could have been effectively mixed to all speakers, but they're not. So much more could have been achieved otherwise. For example, the phone that rings incessantly for several minutes in the beginning of the film, how much more impactful could that effect have been if it blared from all channels? Instead, things like that are mild and confined to the front area.
Ennio Morricone wrote an amazing score for 'Once Upon A Time In America.' Luckily, his music is always well-spread throughout this lossless 5.1 mix. It uses all of the channels and rings loud and clear. After hearing it for nearly four hours, it's hard to not get it stuck in your head – but that's not at all bad thing.
Just as the video quality tends to vary from scene to scene due to the many film sources compiled to make this Extended Director's Cut, the same goes for the audio. Luckily, the only scenes with flawed audio are those that have been added to this new cut. Aside from those, the dialog is completely clear and free of flaws. It's never muffled. There aren't any pops, clicks, thumps or hissing - but during those scenes you'll need to put forth a little extra attention to grasp everything that's spoken.
'Once Upon A Time In America' is a masterpiece in the same vein as 'The Godfather' and other similarly praised classics. It's an indulgent tale that's not afraid to take its time to establish the world in which its amazing characters exist. From the script and direction to acting and music, it's simply perfect. This new extended cut, which contains more footage from Leone's long-lost original cut, creates another reason to revisit it. The video and audio qualities of the new footage ranges from good to very bad (a big chunk of the new footage was remastered from film positives that were never intended to be shown), but the majority of the film features few strong and flaw-free quality. With only one 20-minute special feature, that section of the disc in this edition of the Blu-ray are lacking, so be sure to shell out the extra few bucks for the Collector's Edition if you're looking for more. Either way, the film itself is such a wonderfully perfect achievement that you can't go wrong with. This is a must-own release.