Review: ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984) | Casey's Movie Mania | Movie Reviews, Features & Others

Tuesday, 27 April 2010



Like his companion masterpiece work of the western epic, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969), Italian director Sergio Leone's monumental gangster epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is no doubt one of his finest works in his longtime distinguished directing career. 

A meticulously-detailed story that explores deeply into the life of the gangsters and subsequent ups and downs, the film's epic structure is covered in three important periods: 1923, 1933 and 1968. 

The film opens in 1933 as the gang falls apart. Vicious hoods from another gang are hot on the heel to find David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and wants him dead. But Noodles is actually hiding out in an opium den and indulges himself in the dreamy smoke. From there the story takes us back and forth surrounding New York's Lower East Side as we see the teenage childhood life of Noodles (Scott Tiler) first met Max (Rusty Jacobs) beofe they eventually become good friends. Noodles also has an eye for the beautiful Deborah (Jennifer Connelly), who is the sister of his friend, Fat Moe (Mike Monezzi). Though she likes Noodles,  she knows he will never be any good since he'll bring nothing but trouble, like messing around with the local Irish thugs who resent the sudden competition that Noodles and his friends put them out of business. Things get ugly when the lead Irish thug, Bugsy (James Russo) shoots one of Noodles' younger friend and Noodles didn't hesitate to stab him to death. He gets arrested and spends the rest of his childhood life in prison. When all the boys grow up and the adult Noodles has finished serving his time, he's rejoined with his best friend, Max (James Woods) who's already a rich man along with the rest of their three friends -- Fat Moe (Larry Rapp), Cockeye (William Forsythe) and Patsy (James P. Hayden) and also happened to own the hottest club joint in town. During this subsequent time, Max is determined to grow their small-time gangster empire into a higher crime organization. When greed and hunger for power gets in the way, Max has even go to the extreme: rob the Federal Reserve Bank. But Noodles thinks such heist is totally insane and could cost their life, but Max wouldn't listen. Noodles has no choice but to call the police and informs them of the robbery in hopes to save his friends. Unfortunately his friends suffered deadly consequences when they are killed in a fiery car wreck while being pursued by the police, which happened before the robbery even takes place. Max, however, survives but he is burned beyond recognition. The story in 1968 detailled on the older-looking Noodles returned to New York after been hiding out for 35 years long, in which he begins to learn the truth about the fate of his friends and again confronts the nightmare of his past. 

The original length of this epic is reportedly to be 10 hours long, in which Leone pared to a 6-hour cut that he was satisfied with and at that time, he has considered on releasing it in two 3-hour parts before cutting it down to 229 minutes. 

Unfortunately his film here is brutally excised into a 139 minutes for the initial U.S. release to suit the studio's requirement and went on to become a flop in the box-office. No doubt that the original cut is a must-see as Leone has brilliantly organized his epic in such smooth, non-linear chronological order where he has meticulously explored the time and history throughout the course of the film. 

Filled with enough poetic and insightful moments, Leone evokes his film that ranges from nostalgic to tragic, with generous dosage of comedy, drama, romance and action while memorably conveyed its narration through flashbacks, flash-forwards, dreams and fantasies. The production value is all top-notch, with Tonino Delli Colli's magnificent cinematography to Ennio Morricone's beautifully haunting and emotionally penetrating music score and right down the perfect re-creation of the time period. 

The best segment of the film is easily the 1923 section, where it focuses more of the intimate and spectacular moments that highlighted on graphic depictions of sex and violence. 

All the actors are excellent, with a emotionally complex role from Robert De Niro. 

And while some of the segments is a bit overlong, and the film's 1968 section is rather too confusing for some who didn't pay enough attention, the film remains a cinematic masterpiece for the great Sergio Leone.

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