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Reviews
STAR RATINGS EXPLAINED
Unmissable 5 Stars
Excellent 4 Stars
Good 3 Stars
Poor 2 Stars
Tragic 1 Star

FILM DETAILS
Certificate
18
Cast
Robert De Niro
James Woods
Elizabeth McGovern
Franco Ferrini.
Directors
Sergio Leone.
Screenwriters
Leonardo Benvenuti
Piero De Bernardi
Enrico Medioli
Franco Arcalli
Sergio Leone.
Running Time
139 minutes

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Once Upon A Time In America
Sergio Leone's classic portrait of the birth of 20th century urban America.


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Plot
A former Prohibition-era Jewish gangster returns to Brooklyn over 30 years later, where he once again must confront the ghosts and regrets of his old life.


Review
Let's get our heresies out of the way early on; the film that Once Upon A Time In America is often compared to is, of course, The Godfather. They share superficial similarities: both are epic in scope and exceedingly long. They both have at their heart a history of immigrants and the lure of criminality to the poor; they both traverse decades and they both paint a picture of the birth of 20th century urban America.

Leone's film is arguably the better of the two - if the less popular - eschewing, as it does, the soapy melodramatics of Coppola's family saga in favour of less audience-friendly, but more intriguing, ambiguity and symbolism.

Superficially, it is a gangster film. There are gangs and guns and drive-bys; speakeasies and Prohibition. But in the midst of the familiar trappings, Leone investigates the more resonant, enigmatic themes of time, identity and the reliability of memory. And he does it with incredible technical skill.

Leone is above all a master visualist and his movie is drenched in imagery pregnant with meaning. In the early portion of the film, we follow the adolescent Noodles and Max as they exuberantly roll drunks, torch newspaper stands and form the friendship that will become one of the film's central thematic pillars. Here the looming Manhattan Bridge seems to offer a way out of the poverty stricken ghetto, but nobody ever crosses it.

Later in the film, before the gruelling rape sequence, Noodles dines in a vacant ballroom - an infantile, sociopathic vision of loving gesture, and of course it reveals Noodles as a man who must own the object of his love completely. After it, he stands in a dishevelled tuxedo against a blue-grey seascape, a scene as drained of colour as Noodles now is of redeeming moral worth. But, to get to the point, what is it all about?

Since its release, the complex structure of the movie has left audiences and critics slightly baffled. It's a movie that seems to offer no real resolution. Or at least no easy one. Who took the money from the case at Grand Central Station? How does Max survive what appears to be his murder? And what happens to him in the end? Does he fling himself into the garbage truck after Noodles' final visit? If he does, then the film takes on an unambiguously judgemental tone. The man who came from trash, and reduced a culture to trash, finally reduces himself to trash. Or does any of it actually happen at all?

One fascinating reading of the film, suggested by Leone and investigated by Christopher Frayling in his biography Something About Death, is that the film takes place - in its entirety - in one moment in 1933. Noodles enters the opium den after his betrayal has left his friends dead. He lies on his cot and, in a single moment signified by the enigmatic smile that concludes the film, remembers his past and dreams a possible future.

In the end, Once Upon A Time In America, like all great art - and that is surely what it is - stubbornly resists a final, authoritative interpretation. It places us resolutely alongside the mystified Noodles, desperately searching for a coherence to his life which is probably unobtainable.


Extras

Once Upon A Time In America Once Upon A Time In America
Released: 07 February 2011
A mild disappointment — here is a movie that is due the full retrospective treatment. What we get is a measured and informative commentary from Time’s Richard Schickel — a pity, though, that Britain’s Christopher Frayling, the world’s preeminent Leone expert, couldn’t chip in — as well as a brief documentary with contributions from screenwriters, producer Arnon Milchan, James Woods (a little calmer) and, possibly inevitably, Quentin Tarantino.


Verdict
While The Godfather delivers certainty and a comforting dramatic resolution, Once Upon A Time In America delivers a profound kind of mystery. While Coppola's film delivers answers, Leone's asks questions. It lingers and plays on the mind; its meanings shift and change like a faded memory or a half-remembered dream.


Reviewed by Adam Smith


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Average user rating for Once Upon A Time In America
Empire Star Rating

Once upon a Time...

If you ever have a spare 4 hours or so then Once Upon A Time... is definitely worth a look with it's lavish costume, period settings, outstanding performances and stunning Morricone score. It's not until afterwards when you start to think back that you realise the possibility that everything that happened after the 1930's could have been dreamt by noodles (De Niro) in the opium den. However, we can forgive Leone for being so deceptive because there are many other questions that arise that are ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by gzus at 16:25, 04 April 2010 | Report This Post


Despite running nearly 4 hours long, Leone's homage to gangster films is a richly rewarding experience that offers unprecedented insights into the roots of crime and the power of friendship ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by vermin101 at 05:23, 13 September 2009 | Report This Post


Despite running nearly 4 hours long, Leone's homage to gangster films is a richly rewarding experience that offers unprecedented insights into the roots of crime and the power of friendship ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by vermin101 at 05:23, 13 September 2009 | Report This Post


An enigma of a film, Leone's epic is gripping and realistic ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by wiseguy7 at 09:26, 22 May 2009 | Report This Post


The greatest

this is, without a doubt, the greatest film i have ever seen and most probably will ever see. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by DJ Funktris at 16:51, 14 February 2008 | Report This Post


Once upon a time in America

The most epical movie ever. Beautiful storytelling and backrounds. You actually get sucked up in the film, because it really delivers. It takes you a while to fully see it, but it is worth it. There are some movies that are a must see, and this one has to be on the top five of this list. No Oscar wins or nominations, but who cares! One of the best crime movies around, together with The Godfather Part 1 and 2. ... More

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Posted by daxpieters at 22:11, 19 January 2008 | Report This Post


i dont know if its Leones best - its certanily up there ... More

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Posted by bobbyperu at 08:55, 23 October 2007 | Report This Post


i dont know if its Leones best - its certanily up there ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by bobbyperu at 08:55, 23 October 2007 | Report This Post


A good film...

...can get a bit tiresome but if you have a spare 4 hours worth a go. De Niro is fairly restrained, Woods is engaging. ... More

Empire User Rating

Posted by dhollseed at 01:48, 18 August 2007 | Report This Post



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