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An epic tale about a ruthless criminal empire. As kids, they were the best of friends. But as their criminal endeavors increased, so did the mistrust among them.

Sergio Leone
Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams, Tuesday Weld, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Danny Aiello, William Forsythe
Writing Credits:
Leonardo Benvenuti, Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Franco Arcalli, Franco Ferrini, Sergio Leone, based on the novel by Harry Grey

As boys, they said they would die for each other. As men, they did.
Rated R for strong violence, sexual content, language and some drug use.

Widescreen 1.85:1/16x9
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
English, French, Spanish

Runtime: 229 min.
Price: $26.98
Release Date: 6/10/2003

DVD One/Two:
• Audio Commentary with Film Critic Richard Schickel

DVD Two:
• “Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone”
• Photo Gallery
• Trailer


Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (June 5, 2003)

Many movies fail to attract positive attention during their theatrical runs but they eventually find an audience. 1984’s gangster epic Once Upon a Time In America falls into that category. It received mixed notices and little box office business back then, but over the following decades, it became a cult favorite; currently it ranks 145th among readers at IMDB.

Part of the reason America didn’t do well in 1984 may reflect that fact the US version was barely half of a movie. Instead of the full-length 229-minute edition, US audiences saw a cut that only lasted 139 minutes. 90 minutes of edits meant that the movie must have been severely altered.

I never saw the truncated cut, so I can’t say how well or poorly it worked when compared to the full version. However, I can evaluate the latter. I felt America seemed generally interesting but it lacked the depth and spark to make it anything terribly special.

America focuses on the life of a Prohibition-era gangster named David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert De Niro). The film skips from period to period with abandon, but it starts in 1933 as the legal ban on alcohol officially ends. It looks like Noodles ratted out some partners, and this ends with their deaths. We see Noodles try to hide from other baddies who kill his girlfriend Eve (Darlanne Fleugel) and rough up his buddy Fat Moe (Larry Rapp) as they seek him. Noodles hides in an opium den and we see various parts of his life intersect.

We leap ahead 35 years and see older Noodles return to the old neighborhood. The film pops in and out of the shots from 1968 to watch as Noodles apparently uncovers a mystery related to a suitcase kept in a train station locker.

Most of America takes place in earlier times, however. It skips back to the childhood Noodles (Scott Tiler) and sees how he came to his life of crime. We observe as he spies on Moe’s (Mike Monetti) sophisticated sister Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), who plans to become an actress. Noodles clearly pines for Deborah, but she doesn’t seem to return that level of affection.

We also watch Noodles and his juvenile delinquent buddies Patsy (Brian Bloom), Cockeye (Adrian Curran), and Dominic (Noah Mozezi) as they perform low-level criminal functions. When in the employ of local thug Bugsy (James Remar), they get a choice for their payment after they completed a job. They can either accept a dollar for the whole crew or they can roll a drunk of their choice and take whatever they can get off of him. The boys select the latter, but another young ne’er-do-well named Max (Rusty Jacobs) beats them to punch. This briefly sets up a rivalry between Noodles and Max, but the two soon become best friends and partners in crime.

The remaining childhood episodes follow their exploits and see the death of one of the boys. Noodles spends many years in jail after that episode, and it leads to the other main section of the film as we observe the actions of the gang as adults. In charge with Noodles away, Max (James Woods) has created a viable front for their bootlegging activities, and they’ve done quite well for themselves. Noodles rejoins the group as an equal and the fun resumes.

Noodles still aches for Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) while the gang develop their criminal careers. Essentially the rest of the movie follows these relationships as it builds back toward the seeming betrayal that opened the movie.

At almost four hours in length, one might expect Once Upon a Time In America to really get involved in its characters and situations and to develop them fully. To some degree, that does occur. Director Sergio Leone certainly takes his own sweet time to move the plot. The backstory with the younger versions of the characters lasts almost half the movie. That seems fairly remarkable, though I guess it’s not that unusual, since The Godfather Part II spent at least 90 minutes with the story of young Don Corleone.

Nonetheless, Leone definitely tells the movie at a patient and deliberate pace, and that usually works well for the film. It lets us feel the characters and the settings and absorb their world more fully. However, I don’t think this really contributes to the depth of the personalities. The movie fails to really explore the inner lives us the participants, and they remain somewhat distant to us. I won’t call them superficial examinations, but given the amount of time we spend with these people, I feel like we should know them much better than we do.

Despite the film’s length, it doesn’t really embrace an epic scope to make up for the characterization weaknesses. Without any form of natural spectacle, the focus remains on the personalities, and that makes the movie less compelling. I never felt all that interested in the characters, and the film doesn’t include any grander events to add spark. Essentially a long character piece, the lack of depth for the personalities makes it something of a chore at times.

The actors do fairly well in their parts, though none really excel. America remains a pretty low-key and almost somnambulant flick. Leone’s deliberate pacing translates to the sleepy portrayals of the characters. All seem more than competent, but the loginess of the effort causes it to drag a bit. I also don’t think that the actors demonstrate much chemistry between each other, at least not with the adults. Some of the kids interact well, but the key dynamics between De Niro and Woods or De Niro and McGovern fail to materialize. Nothing really problematic emerges, but the performances don’t seem to stand out from the crowd.

If I needed to pick out one element of America I genuinely disliked, it would be the score. Others will disagree, as I’ve heard more than a few very positive opinions of the movie’s music. However, I disagree with those sentiments. Parts of the score seem just fine; in fact, I’d say that most of it is pretty decent. However, it turns terribly syrupy and sappy at times. It prominently features the world’s worst rendition of “Yesterday” too.

I do think that America enjoys a good story at its heart, and the movie explores it reasonably well. I don’t want to discuss specifics about the ending, but I will relate that it seems very intriguing. At one point, the third act turns seemingly cheesy, but a provocative twist at the very end totally changes our perception of events. This ends the flick on a cool note and makes it more memorable.

While most of my comments have been moderately negative, I don’t want to give the impression that I dislike America. The movie actually remains generally interesting. While slow-paced, it did maintain my attention most of the time, and given the film’s long running time, that seems like a substantial achievement.

I simply feel that it fails to excel in most areas. The movie seems competent in most ways but not much about it qualifies as excellent. It certainly doesn’t live up to the levels established by other gangster flicks like The Godfather or GoodFellas.

One note about the DVD presentation: though the packaging states that Disc One ends with the movie’s intermission, this isn’t correct. Instead, that platter concludes abruptly. The intermission doesn’t show up until the 41:31 mark on Disc Two.

The DVD Grades: Picture B / Audio C / Bonus B-

Once Upon a Time In America appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on these single-sided, double-layered DVDs; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Most of the picture looked very good, but a few source problems dropped my rating a bit.

The film consistently displayed solid sharpness. No softness issues occurred to mar the presentation. The movie remained crisp and detailed from start to finish. Jagged edges and moiré effects caused no concerns, and I witnessed no signs of edge enhancement. Unfortunately, the print looked moderately defective at times. I noticed more than a few examples of speckles, marks and spots throughout the film. These never became overwhelming, but they caused a fair number of distractions.

As one often finds in old-timey flicks like America, the palette tended toward a moderate sepia tint much of the time. Within those dimensions, the colors looked quite good. The various hues came across as natural and distinctive. Black levels also seemed deep and tight, while low-light shots appeared clean and accurate. Except for the mildly excessive number of print flaws, America presented a very nice image.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Once Upon a Time In America seemed less satisfying. Essentially the soundfield offered glorified mono. Most of the film remained heavily anchored in the front center, though a few occasions broadened the mix moderately. For example, scenes in the speakeasy displayed decent general ambience, and various vehicles moved across the spectrum to a mild degree. Music also featured light spread to the sides, though stereo delineation remained weak. Surround usage appeared very spare at best, as I couldn’t discern a single instance of noticeable activity from the rear speakers.

I didn’t really mind the restricted scope of the soundfield, mostly due to the movie’s age; to be sure, many flicks from 1984 featured Dolby Surround audio, but it wasn’t quite the given it is today. Unfortunately, America lost some points due to the quality of the audio. Speech generally seemed intelligible and reasonably concise, but the lines sometimes came across as moderately edgy. I noticed an awful lot of poorly done looping as well. Music appeared fairly dense and sounded too bass-heavy much of the time. Some instances of the score were a bit distorted, and that factor affected a few effects as well. Gunfire occasionally came across as rough, and other effects lacked definition and detail. In general, the audio of America sounded dull and muddy. It wasn’t terrible for its age, but it seemed very uninspired.

We find a small collection of supplements for Once Upon a Time in America. Spread across both discs, we get an audio commentary from Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel. He provides a running, screen-specific piece. I’ve also heard Schickel tracks for other flicks like Unforgiven, and this one largely resembles those.

Overall, Schickel offers a nice exploration of the movie. He gives us some background for the flick and its director, and he attempts to explain a few changes from the original novel, though he never read it, which limits his ability in that vein. Schickel provides some useful interpretation and character analysis as well. At times, he does little more than narrate the flick or simply praise it, and the commentary drags on occasion. In general, though, Schickel tells us a lot of useful material and makes this a worthwhile listen.

Somebody make sure Paul McCartney doesn’t hear the commentary, though. The ex-Beatle always worries that his former songwriting partner has overshadowed him, so McCartney clearly wouldn’t be happy to hear Schickel incorrectly refers to “Yesterday” as a John Lennon tune.

DVD Two tosses in a few components. The main one is a piece of a documentary called Once Upon a Time: Sergio Leone. This 19-and-a-half minute segment features clips from America along with archival materials and interviews with Carla Leone, Raffaella Leone, Francesca Leone, Quentin Tarantino, writers Piero De Bernardi, Enrico Medioli, Leo Benvenuti and Stuart Kaminsky, producer Arnon Milchan, and actors Scott Tiler, James Woods, and James Coburn.

Because it includes bits and pieces of a longer program, “Time” occasionally seems a little fragmented. However, it usually goes acceptably smoothly. It gives us some information about Leone’s early interest in The Hoods, the development of the script, the making of the flick, the edited US version, and its reception. We also hear a bit about Leone’s death and his legacy. The best moments come from some plot reflections offered by Woods. A few other good notes appear as well, but “Time” suffers somewhat because it occasionally feels more like a eulogy than a documentary.

Two other elements complete DVD Two. Photographic Memories gives us a good collection of pictures. We get 96 production images in all. Lastly, we find the movie’s trailer.

Not much appreciated in its day, Once Upon a Time In America has garnered much higher status in the years since then. Personally, I think the movie has its moments and seems generally interesting, but it falls far short of honest greatness. The DVD presents moderately flawed but mostly solid picture quality along with very average audio and a modest package of supplements highlighted by a fairly insightful audio commentary. Fans should eagerly receive this DVD. Others who’ve not seen the flick may want to give it a rental.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.4102 Stars Number of Votes: 117
5 3:
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Review Archive:  # | A-C | D-F | G-I | J-L | M-O | P-R | S-U | V-Z | Viewer Ratings | Main