Principal Cast : Robert DeNiro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Scott Tiler, Rusty Jacobs, Jennifer Connelly, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, Danny Aiello, Richard Bright, James Hayden, William Forsythe, Darlanne Fluegel, Larry Rapp, Estelle Harris, Brian Bloom, Adrian Curran.
Synopsis: A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to the Lower East Side of Manhattan 35 years later, where he must once again confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.
Editor’s Note: This review is based upon the available 229-minute BluRay edition available worldwide. The original US theatrical and restored home release versions of this film, which ran a reported 139 minutes and 251 minutes, are not currently available to this reviewer.
Once Upon a Time in America, directed by Sergio Leone and released in 1984, is a cinematic epic that stands as a testament to the power of storytelling and filmmaking. This review attempts to capture the unique blend of admiration and confusion experienced by many viewers, where exceptional performances and outstanding production values are paired with a storyline that can be, at times, befuddling and violence that appears excessive for the narrative.
First and foremost, the acting in Once Upon a Time in America is nothing short of extraordinary. The stellar cast, led by Robert De Niro and James Woods, deliver performances that are both compelling and authentic. De Niro, in particular, gives a standout performance as Noodles, a complex character torn between loyalty and self-preservation. The supporting cast, including Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci and Tuesday Weld, add depth and dimension to the story. Their portrayal of these characters is so convincing that it is easy to become deeply engrossed in the narrative. Jennifer Connelly, in a major supporting role, is as luminous an actress as always.
The production values of this film are a feast for the eyes. Leone and his team have painstakingly recreated the ambiance of New York City from the early 20th century to the 1960s. The meticulous attention to detail in the costumes, sets, and cinematography brings this bygone era to life in a way that is both visually stunning and historically immersive. Ennio Morricone’s musical score is evocative and memorable, enhancing the overall viewing experience. However, while the film excels in terms of acting and production, the storyline is where Once Upon a Time in America takes a detour into confusion for many viewers. The narrative is structured in a non-linear fashion, bouncing back and forth between different time periods, making it challenging to follow at times. This complexity can be intriguing for some, adding depth to the story, but it can also leave others feeling perplexed and disconnected from the characters’ motivations and actions.
The violence in the film is another point of contention. While it serves to emphasize the brutal nature of the gangster world depicted in the story, some may argue that it occasionally becomes gratuitous and detracts from the overall narrative. The intensity and graphic nature of certain scenes can overshadow the more subtle and profound aspects of the film, making it feel unbalanced. Despite these challenges, Once Upon a Time in America is a cinematic masterpiece that deserves recognition for its ambition and artistic achievements. The film’s intricate narrative structure and visceral violence may be difficult to digest, but they also invite repeated viewings, allowing viewers to uncover new layers and meanings with each watch.
Once Upon a Time in America is a film that simultaneously awes and befuddles its audience. The exceptional acting, remarkable production values, and the complex narrative structure offer an unforgettable cinematic experience, even if it sometimes feels like an intricate puzzle that’s missing a few crucial pieces. While the violence may be too vulgar for some, it undoubtedly contributes to the raw and unapologetic portrayal of the characters’ lives in a ruthless world. For those willing to invest the time and effort, the journey through this film is bound to be a rewarding and unforgettable one.