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86 of 98 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Leone's final masterpiece, finally on DVD., 11 Jun 2003
This review is from: Once Upon A Time In America [DVD] [1984] (DVD)
Based on the dire pulp novel 'The Hoods' by Harry Grey (republished under this title by Bloomsbury), Once Upon a Time in America was the final film from legendary director Sergio Leone. Infamously it was edited from its 228minute duration- making it a nonsensical gangster flick. Leone never made another film again & eventually died in 1989...
Once...America is Leone returning to the form suggested by 1969's ultimate spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West- films like I'm Gonna Get You Sucka! (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) somehow mediocre. As with ...West, Leone failed to get Clint Eastwood on board here- though with a cast featuring great performances from De Niro (of course), James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Treat Williams & a (very) young Jennifer Connelly, he's hardly missed. There are also some great cameos from stalwarts such as Joe Pesci (against type), Danny Aiello & Burt Young.
It seemed absurd that this film, occasionlly shown on TV, was not available on video/DVD, & yet you could buy the (excellent)BFI book on it. The extra features are wonderful additions to this great gangster epic. Once...America for me is the end of the gangster genres- while Goodfellas (1990) was the brilliant encore, yet to be bettered. It is easily up there with the first two Godfather films, or Mean Streets- though it's complex flashback structure has more in common with Godfather Part II, or more pertinently, Nic Roeg films like Don't Look Now & Performance.
The film starts somewhere in the middle of things, shifting backwards and forwards revealing more about the before & after- taking in a gang of Jewish criminals between 1922 & 1968. To say much more would give this epic classic away- it is wonderfully shot (as great looking as films like Gangs of New York & Heaven's Gate and with a cityscape that would influence films like Road to Perdition) and complemented by one of the greatest film scores from one of the greatest film scorers, Ennio Morricone. The 'child' parts are wonderfully acted- easily up there with the early part of Goodfellas & there are some great comic moments (notably the baby mix up) & nice to see Treat Williams character standing in for Jimmy Hoffa! There are a few duff/false elements- the terrible muzak take of The Beatles Yesterday, & the end might irritate people. But that is countered by a vile petrol soaking scene (easily beating that in Reservoir Dogs), a dire rape in the back of a limo, De Niro lost in an opium haze, an opulent Gatsby like luxury & the way the childhood friends are ultimately corrupted- the corpses on the road in the rain, who once joyfully collected salt-encrusted booty, or in my fave scene, consumed a wonderful cake rather than having a look at some tush!
Once Upon a Time in America is proof, along with Blue Velvet, River's Edge and Drugstore Cowboy, that some great films were made in the 1980s. Contrast this to Coppola's generally dire The Cotton Club (also 1984); a classic that anyone with an interest in De Niro or crime films should own, in this the definitive version
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