Once Upon a Time in America: Extended Director’s Cut (Blu-ray)

October 3, 2014 8 Min Read

Review by: Matt Brighton and Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro) has spent many years in prison, thanks to his involvement in organized crime. Even as a child, Noodles and his chums would get into all kinds of trouble. He and his friends even worked for Bugsy (James Remar), a thug who would give them low level capers to engage in. Once the assignment had been completed, the payment was offered with an option, either one dollar for the crew or the chance to rob someone, taking whatever could be removed from the person. Around that time, Noodles finds himself locking horns with a young man named Max, who is also interested in underhanded activities. At first, the two have a sort of rivalry, but over time, a friendship and strong bond develops. The spree continues for a while, but comes to a close when a crew member dies and Noodles is put behind bars. After a number of years had passed, Max (James Woods) is in charge of the crew and its bootlegging operation, which has been a massive success. When he is released, Noodles rejoins his old friends and the boys are back to the old ways. But when the bond between Max and Noodles begins to unravel, what will become of the one time friends?

This one has been a long time in the coming, but at last Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America has arrived with Leone’s extended cut. This epic tale of organized crime has influenced countless filmmakers, not to mention the massive critical acclaim and audience approval the film has garnered. Leone (A Fistful of Dollars, Once Upon a Time in the West) assembled a masterful cast here, one which includes Robert De Niro, James Woods, Treat Williams, Elizabeth McGovern, and Joe Pesci, as well as numerous other gifted workers. So you know the performances are excellent across the board, given the talent on both sides of the camera. This release includes the full version of the movie, as shown to audiences at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival, which is offered for the time on home video. So unless you’ve imported a foreign version, this is the first time most fans can see this extended cut, which is a real treat. At almost four hours, you’d think the movie hits slow stretches, but this is still a well paced picture. The characters are well developed, the storyline is given ample room to unfold, and thanks to the depth of the material, we’re taken inside this world and allowed to absorb its contents. But even with a wide, epic scope, the film remains personal in nature, so we never lose perspective. This is one of the best mafia movies out there, but even if you’re not into that genre, give Once Upon a Time in America a look. Warner’s release is solid in all respects.

If you sit down and list the greatest mafia movies of all time, one actor will surface in almost all of the pictures listed. He is Robert De Niro, and he is not only an icon in organized crime cinema, but in cinema as a whole. I do have to agree with his critics to an extent, as his range has lagged off in more recent years, but De Niro is still fun to watch. And in his heyday, he was among the elite workers in the business, turning in some of the most effective, powerful, and memorable performances out there. De Niro didn’t take the cake roles either, he took on the harsh, tough roles and delivered each and every time, without fail. These days, he seems satisfied to work in fluff and lackluster projects, but when he was more careful with his career choices, he nailed some excellent roles. In this movie, he brings a real sense of honor and control to the role, which he unrolls in a natural, believable fashion. Other films with De Niro include Taxi Driver, Meet the Parents, Casino, Cape Fear, Raging Bull, and Mean Streets. The cast also includes James Woods (Any Given Sunday, Videodrome), Joe Pesci (Goodfellas, The Death Collector), and Elizabeth McGovern (The House of Mirth, King of the Hill).

Video: How’s it look?

This is a bit hit and miss with a definitive “score” to assign as to how this looks. One one hand, the majority of the film looks spectacular as it did with the previous Blu-ray release. However, nearly 30 minutes of additional footage have been added into this (making it the “Director’s Extended Edition”) film and, well, they aren’t up to the standard set by the rest of the movie. Now this isn’t a bad thing and it’s certainly something that Warner has done before, and the 1954 version of A Star is Born comes to mind in which stills were added in several sequence with music and dialogue looped over those stills. By and large, the 1.85:1 AVC HD image looks very good. To preserve Leone’s vision, a lot of the colors are now a bit muted, grey’s dominate the palette and detail is improved. There’s a tiny bit of DNR throughout, but nothing to get too worked up about.  The theatrical cut (on Disc 2) is the same as the previously-released Blu-ray.

Audio: How’s it sound?

The DTS HD Master Audio mix found here is a tad bit misleading as the score seems to resonate “lossless” sound throughout, but the additional scenes added don’t have the same impact or power of this DTS track. Vocals are strong and rich, and while directional effects are present, they don’t really make use of all the channels. By and large, it’s a front-heavy track, though I’ll say that the score by Ennio Morricone, is pretty amazing.

Supplements: What are the extras?

Warner has released this in two different versions: a single, movie-only edition and a more robust two-disc version in Digibook style, with a new production photo book as well as the theatrical Blu-ray.

  • Audio Commentary (Theatrical Cut Only) – Richard Schickel provides a lot of worthwhile comments, from production information to his own personal analysis. This allows for a nice balance between his comments, though he does sometimes slack off and simply narrate.
  • Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone – An excerpt from a television documentary about the life of Sergio Leone. I’d have liked the entire thing, but I guess licensing issues persist.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • DigiBook – As is the case with other Warner DigiBooks, this has information about the movie along with several production photos throughout.

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