Starring: Robert DeNiro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, James Hayden, William Forsythe
Rated R for Strong Violence including a Rape, Sexual Content, Language and Some Drug Use
What is it about the mafia that Hollywood finds so compelling? Many of cinema's finest films revolve around the mob. "Goodfellas," TV's "The Sopranos," "The Departed." And of course, "The Godfather" trilogy. Perhaps it's because, despite the violence and crime, these people still abide by understandable human values: honor, integrity, respect, and family.
"Once Upon a Time in America," the last film by legendary Italian director Sergio Leone, is a different sort of mafia movie. There's no "Don" whoever, there are no enforcers, and family, literally or figuratively, is hardly mentioned. While no one will deny that the realities of a life of crime are romanticized, there's little adrenaline to be found. In its place, we have loss and regret.
David "Noodles" Aaronson (DeNiro) has just received an invitation (of sorts) to come back to New York City, where he and three of his friends ran their own criminal outfit during Prohibition. There, he reflects on his past deeds, realizing that there is a price to pay for everything we do. And even if Noodles survived his past, that doesn't mean he didn't suffer the consequences. Coming home after thirty years in exile drives that point home very quickly.
The performances are top-notch. Robert DeNiro ably portrays a man who is aloof to reality but is still subject to human impulses, however dark they may be. James Woods has never been better, switching from funny to intense to lovable in a flash. There's little of his trademark motormouth wisecracks. He's calm and in control. Elizabeth McGovern is flat as Deborah, the longtime crush of Noodles. She looks the part, but her performance is lacking. James Hayden and William Forsythe play the other two members of the quartet.
"Once Upon a Time in America" had a sad production history. Originally, Sergio Leone and his editor Nino Baragli cut the film down from eight to ten hours into six, intending to release it as two three-hour films. The producers refused, so it was cut down to three hours and forty nine minutes. However, Leone was contractually obligated to deliver a film that was two hours and forty five minutes long. The film bombed at the box office and was critically reviled, thus ruining its chances at garnering any awards attention. Adding insult to injury, a bureaucratic snafu on the part of the distributor prevented legendary composer Ennio Morricone from receiving an Oscar nomination for his score, which many consider to be his best work. When the full cut was released, as it had been in Europe, it was hailed as a masterpiece.
I won't go that far. For one thing, the film drags at the beginning and the end. The film opens with a murder, and then jumps forward to when Noodles arrives back in New York City. Too much time is spent with him visiting his old stomping grounds. We see the emotional toll it takes on him, but without an explanation, all we can really do is appreciate the film's look (the camerawork by Tonino Delli Colli is truly gorgeous) and Morricone's score (which is as beautiful as its reputation suggests). When the film goes back in time to when Noodles and his friends are kids, that's when the film takes off. During the final act, things become muddled, plotholes become apparent (many of which are never resolved) and the story takes too long to wrap up. Cut ten minutes or so off each end of the film and it would probably be a better film.
Flaws aside, "Once Upon a Time in America" is a very good film, at times great. It makes you think about the past and the decisions you've made. And the friends you've gotten to know and love along the way.