NB: As is Amazon's Wont, they've very unhelpfully bundled all the reviews for various editions and formats together. This review refers to the Italian Blu-ray release of the new extended edition that premiered at Cannes in 2012 and WHV's Blu-ray and DVD of the 229-minute version released in Europe.
Once Upon a Time in America is one of those films that seems to gain in stature with each viewing - indeed, it's one of the few films to match a great novel for complexity, and can be interpreted in a number of ways. In many ways it's a film where you have to choose for yourself which interpretation is the right one, as it can support several: a memory, a fable about resurrection (certainly the first thing he sees on his return to New York is the dead being raised from a cemetery by trucks), a tableaux of American social history, even just a simple gangster saga that's surprisingly light on violence for its running time (though what there is is vicious). I've always regarded the film as being about the way we reinterpret our memories depending on our present circumstances (thus the lowest point of Noodles' life becomes, in the final shot, the happiest once he knows the truth), but on subsequent viewing noticed far more evidence to support the opium dream interpretation that Leone floated without ever committing himself to. Certainly everything in the final scene outside Senator Bailey's house points to it: the garbage truck with 35 (the number of years Noodles has been `going to bed early'), the Chinese pagoda in the background, the drunken revellers celebrating the end of prohibition (in 1968!) are all pulling him back to the Chinese opium den as if he were coming down from a trip. I doubt there is a right or a wrong interpretation - it's all in the eye of the beholder. And the filmmaking is still incredibly ambitious and effective - huge chunks of the film are dialog-free, carried by performance, camera and Morricone's yearning score, while there's been nothing to match the sheer audacity of the phone call sequence in the three decades since it was made.
And now, after decades of rumours and false starts, not to mention the multiple cut American versions that existed over the years, the almost-complete extended version of Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America finally reaches Blu-ray and DVD, albeit only in Italy at the moment. Thankfully the disc is English-friendly, with English soundtrack and subtitle options as well as Italian. Not so thankfully the now 250-minute film has been put on one extras-free single disc with very disappointing picture quality considering the restored version was originally mastered in 4k. While you expect to make allowances for the 22 minutes or so of restored footage - though perhaps not quite as many as are needed here - the same shouldn't be said of the rest of the film, but sadly the inconsistent picture quality is at times a bit substandard for Blu-ray, lacking detail, not coping well with shadows in some scenes and with very different colour grading to the 229-minute theatrical version that gives it a kind of metallic sepia tone that will be recognisable to any of the film's fans who saw the lavish large promotional brochure for the film that has become a collector's item. But for now, Warner's uncharacteristically substandard disc is the only game in town if you want to see the longest version of the film.
Strictly speaking this isn't quite a director's cut, and not just because it's been restored by Leone's children from his own cutting notes. The 229-minute version was his preferred version, but he planned to incorporate the deleted scenes into a longer version for European TV that got abandoned in the wake of the film's disastrous initial reception. There's nothing here that's essential to the story or which adds much to the film: this is more a version for people who love the film and want more. Louise Fletcher's restored scene at the cemetery is fairly redundant and not particularly well played (it also boasts quite atrocious picture quality), Elizabeth McGovern's Katherine Hepburnesque death scene from Antony and Cleopatra tends to slow the picture down and much of the rest is filling in gaps: in this version, Noodles is a witness to the car bomb that kills a senate hearing witness, while his relationship with Darlanne Fluegel is much more fleshed out (albeit awkwardly placed after the rape scene), underlining his sexual immaturity. There's a brief exchange with his chauffeur about the Nazis and Jews ("Jews don't have to be like Italians and look up to criminals") but it's clear that producer Arnon Milchan's performance led to that being cut from the film. The longest addition is a final scene with Treat Williams' Jimmy Hoffa-like union boss and James Woods that shows how the balance of power between the two has shifted, but while it's interesting it spells out too much of what's coming in the finale and is a bit redundant.
The greatest strengths remain those of the 229-minute version: the elegiac mood, the unhurried visual storytelling that makes such an impression in the opening of the film in particular, the ambitious structure shifting between three different time periods as it follows the workings of its anti-hero's memory, the details whose importance don't become apparent until a second viewing such as the bricked up door in the bar, Ennio Morricone's melancholy and yearning score, and the excellent performances from De Niro when he still cared about his work, James Woods and the underpraised child actors who do such an impressive job of embodying the actors who will play the gang in the main body of the film. It's what we've already seen that makes the film such a spellbinding and surprisingly rich and complex experience for those who are on its wavelength. Yet while there are no great revelations and no great transformations in this extended version, it's still a must for lovers of the film. It's just a shame that this version hasn't been mastered on home video with the kind of care and attention it deserves.
By comparison, Warner's release of the 229-minute director's cut comes with an audio commentary, 19-minute extract from documentary Once Upon a Time - Sergio Leone, stills gallery and theatrical trailer - though be warned that that for no good reason the DVD version has a terrible side-break (unlike the BD, the DVD is spread over two discs), especially for a film with an intermission that would have been so much more appropriate.
EDIT: It has to be said that there has been some very, very slight improvement over the original Italian Blu-ray release, but nothing dramatic enough for people not to be disappointed by the quality of the restored scenes. It's more or less the same restoration - the only difference in content is the restoration credits, which are in English - but with slight differences in grading. Louise Fletcher's scene has more of a slight green tinge to it rather than the slight sepia in the Italian pressing, though the other additional scenes such as the Cleopatra death scene are very similar. For the rest of the film I'd give the US/UK issue the edge: there's not much difference in definition, but the grading, while still different from the original release, seems very slightly less noticeable on a side-by-side comparison.
Unlike the Italian Blu-ray, it also has extras - the film's US trailer, which includes some shots from the extended version, and the longer international trailer as well as the same documentary extract from the earlier release, but no audio commentary from the previous European theatrical release version since it will no longer fit with the restored footage. While the UK has a single disc release, the region-free US collector's edition offers both cuts of the film (the new extended version on one disc, the previous Blu-ray version of the European theatrical cut on the other) with a Blu-ray-sized hardback book inside the slipcase.