Once Upon a Time in America

January 28, 2012 9 Min Read

Review by: 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, in a two disc edition, no less. 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, so don’t hesitate to nab this two disc edition.

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, of course 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 does it look?

Once Upon a Time in America is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. I was quite impressed here, as given the film’s length and the reworked footage, I expected a decent, but bland visual presentation. The print used has some nicks and marks, but these defects never become extreme, while sharpness remains high, so while there is some debris, it never causes softness to become an issue. The film’s color scheme is a more washed out, muted presence, so don’t expect bold hues and such here. But the colors look just as intended, which means softer than we’re used to, but that’s how it should be in this case. I found contrast to be superb here, thanks to some razor sharp and well refined black levels. Even with some mild flaws, this is a great looking visual effort that should more than please fans.

Audio: How does it sound?

A Dolby Digital 5.1 option is found here, but it comes off as limited and offers a rather basic experience. I heard no real surround presence here, as the elements remained in the front channels at all times. There is some nice separation and presence in the front channels, but the mix isn’t as immersive as I expected. I know this movie was made in 1984, but some remixes of even older films have been so terrific, I guess I raised my expectations too high this time. I found dialogue to be smooth and without flaws, though music has a harsh edge in a few places and sound effects sometimes seem a tad rough. Even so, the experience is a solid one and even without rear channel presence, the elements come across well. So not as memorable as I had hoped, but a solid presentation, all things considered. This release also includes a French language track, as well as subtitles in English, Spanish, and French.

Supplements: What are the extras?

This might be a two disc release, but because of the film’s extensive running time, the selection of extras is sparse. The main supplement is an audio commentary track from film critic Richard Schickel. The session proves to be a good one, though because of the length of the movie, some slow stretches do surface. But 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, which is pretty much a waste of time here. This release also includes a twenty minute excerpt from Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone, some still photos, and the film’s theatrical trailer.

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