Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Review

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A perfected gangster masterpiece just got more epic.

by Casimir Harlow Oct 19, 2014 at 8:44 AM

  • Movies review


    Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Review
    SRP: £18.00

    Once Upon a Time in America Film Review

    Over three decades after its original release Sergio Leone's masterpiece remains a perfect classic, one of the best gangster movies ever made.

    An epic crime saga that spans half a century and traverses some of the most eventful periods of American history. It was a 15 year labour of love for Leone, and the film went shockingly disregarded in the US on its butchered abbreviated first release, which not only stripped the film of almost an hour of footage, but also edited it back into a terrible chronological order, ruining the director’s masterful playfulness with time. Ironically it was outside the US that this true classic was appreciated in all its original 229 minute glory. And then we found out that this wasn’t quite ‘all’ of its glory; that the director’s original vision was actually a even longer cut, running at over 4 hours in length – a notion which the producer baulked at, right before cutting it down to half its length.

    Finally we now get this full 251 minute version, or do we? This is actually the closest approximation that fans will likely ever see to what many think was Leone’s original vision. Of course the legendary director has long since passed away, and the available footage from his original vision was found strewn across the globe in various states of quality (or lack thereof) and had to be pieced together like archaeologists would fossils from a dinosaur. Painstakingly.
    It’s hard to qualify the end result as a better movie than the 229 minute cut that we all already know and love because, frankly, that was already a perfect masterpiece. What would you have really wanted more of? Here the additions to some of the secondary and tertiary characters give them more focus and background, the smaller childhood flashback flourishes broaden the epic feel yet further, and the imagery of some of the film’s key moments – including the ambiguous garbage truck sequence, for which we get a more conclusive answer – are beautifully married up with earlier scenes.

    However, all this good new footage doesn’t necessarily make this a case of Alien 3 Workprint vs. Alien 3 Theatrical Cut; this isn’t clear-cut. Whilst it’s great to see the footage, the variable quality does make it harder to integrate it into your viewing experience, threatening to take you out of the movie at times when, in the previous cut, you would have been fully absorbed. And since the original version was already a great movie, it doesn't arguably need the 'Alien 3 Workprint treatment'. Undoubtedly it’s great to have this new version to check out though, and it’ll be a must-have for fans; just don’t expect it to replace what was already arguably a perfect version of a perfect movie.

    Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Picture Quality

    Once Upon a Time in America Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Picture Quality
    This Extended Director’s Cut of Once Upon a Time in America comes complete with a 1080p/AVC-encoded High Definition video presentation framed in the movie’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 widescreen. The majority of 4K remastered footage (i.e. the standard edition) looks very impressive; it stands up with a very good image, particularly for a movie that’s well over three decades’ old.

    The new-found footage tends to bring down the quality a notch but it’s still likely the best shape we’ll ever see it in.

    The issues almost wholly revolve around the ‘new’ footage, although, in some ways, the same can be said about the older cut, which always had inherent issues that made some sequences look slightly worse than others. The newfound footage has been cleaned up as best as it could be with current technology – which, I suspect, allows it to be cleaned up pretty damn well – but who knows what state it was found in, because some of the shots still look fairly dodgy. The good news? There’s plenty of new footage that looks excellent. Not quite seamlessly integrated into the proceedings, but pretty close. There’s also a fair amount that you can tell has been added through the visual disparity, but which is also of solid quality. Unfortunately there is, of course, a fair amount of newly seen footage which sticks out like a sore thumb. The better quality home cinema setup you have, the worse this is going to look; indeed, Leone fans may wish they were watching it back on an old VHS where the changes in quality may have almost gone unnoticed.

    Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Sound Quality

    Once Upon a Time in America Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Sound Quality
    Similarly the audio track – which was previously a solid, but far from exceptional or demo worthy presentation of the movie – delivers a mixed bag only in terms of the extra material. Indeed it is rather difficult to award a score based on the integrated new material because it’s likely that this is the best that this cut of the film is ever going to look or sound, so it feels somewhat miserly to deduct points for the disparity in quality in terms of the newly-found footage.

    Again, on the aural front, the newly-found scenes sport a noticeable drop in quality.

    Almost all of the new footage comes with a more muffled audio accompaniment, as if somebody went a little overboard with the old Dolby Noise Reduction filter. There’s no glaring audio damage audible – no pops or hisses, no scratches or unwanted background noise – but, conversely, the dialogue isn’t as clear, and the background effects suffer even moreso. Again, put in the context of the movie as a whole, this isn’t a huge issue; and it doesn’t overtly spoil your enjoyment at discovering the joys of this newly-crafted version of the director’s original extended vision, but you will have to pay that little bit more attention to the new scenes (as if you wouldn’t already), and they are certainly nowhere near the kind of quality that we’ve come to expect on remastered HD-audio tracks.

    Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Extras

    Unfortunately – although not wholly unexpectedly – we lose the Audio Commentary that adorned the previous BD release. Perhaps disc space was a concern, but more likely it was hard to coherently adapt film historian Richard Schtikel’s interesting but rather scene-specific offering to this longer cut. So all we get is the porting of the same 20-minute excerpt from the Sergio Leone Documentary; the portion dedicated to this movie. Oh and some trailers.

    Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Verdict

    Once Upon a Time in America Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray Verdict
    With a perfect period portrayal of Depression and then Prohibition-era America, expert cinematography, powerhouse central performances (highlighted by one of the most wide-ranging of master actor Robert De Niro’s Golden Era roles) and brought together with a majestic operatic quality thanks to composer Ennio Morricone’s breathtaking score, this final film by legendary director Sergio Leone stands out as his piece de resistance.

    Playing with time, utilising daring ambiguity and capturing the search for ‘the American Dream’, this is a defining gangster epic and an all-time classic.

    This new extended director’s cut sports footage which leaves the video, audio, extras and even the film itself in flux when it comes to regarding its technical merits – your experience is directly affected by these new elements which vary in quality, but, at the same time, this is likely the best package that we are going to get (short of a 2-disc release which sports both cuts and the Commentary on the original cut) and fans will certainly, undoubtedly, want to check it out.

    Once Upon a Time in America was already a perfect movie, but the chance to see a more accurate approximation of master director Sergio Leone’s original vision of this film is simply too good to miss out on. Check this out now.

    Suggested retail price when reviewed: £18.00

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