dan_ze_1’s review published on Letterboxd:
Leone Week 6 of 6
Sergio Leone's career is still one of cinema's greatest streaks. After his debut with The Colossus of Rhodes, he made 4 back-to-back films that should all be considered genre-defining. He reinvented the Western, for all intents and purposes. And after a slight dip in quality with Duck, You Sucker, a film that Leone was pretty much coaxed into directing, he made his final film. And I can gladly say that Once Upon a Time in America is just as awe-inspiring as those first 4 films, perhaps more so.
For a movie that's pretty close to the four hour mark, it's incredibly captivating. There are times where the characters talk a bit longer than we're used to, the images are much taller than the usual Techniscope, but you know it's a Leone film when your eyes are glued to the screen regardless. The long takes are still there, the one-liners that define characters are still there, Carlo Simi returns to help provide some beautiful sets.
This might also be the strongest screenplay in a Leone film. The characters are easily the most complex yet, but the story structure is brilliant and helps the film breathe. How the US markets thought recutting this into chronological order would "help" the movie is beyond me. These characters are beyond despicable, but unlike, say, Goodfellas, which felt like it was begging me to care for them anyway, this film does not shy away from it at all. Leone's always been a fan of admittedly gratuitous violence and torture (amongst other things), but it all feels justified in this film, more than any other in his filmography. You do end up feeling something for the characters at the end, but I think a lot of it is down to the clever use of flashbacks. We feel like we're growing up with the characters. I also think Leone nails the ending this time. It's a nice nod to the other Once Upon a Time film, while also selling the emotional hook. It's one of the few depressing movies that is still captivating, and when the story is as masterfully told as this, it is a surprisingly satisfying watch (even if it's not one I think I'd revisit often, it's a bit too much of a downer).
The cast is perfect as always. Leone has both worked with and nurtured some of the biggest players in Hollywood's history, and gets a lot of deserved praise for bringing out the best in them. De Niro is not an exception to this, and his lead performance is phenomenal to watch. The child cast for this film is also pretty great. They are given some rather difficult material, but they do a fantastic job.
Morricone's music is a key ingredient to all of Leone's films, and for his swansong, he needed the composer to deliver something incredibly special. Of course Ennio, being the maestro he is, delivered in spades, with a score that is achingly melodic. I'm not sure if it's his best Leone score, but that means very little when you consider what those other scores are. Still one of cinema's finest soundtracks.
I went into this movie with surprisingly tepid expectations. After listening to Sir Christopher Frayling's audio commentary on Duck, You Sucker, I definitely understood where Leone was going with that film a lot better, but I'm not sure if I liked it more. This film's enormous runtime didn't raise my hopes either. Having watched it, I think it might be the best Sergio Leone film, possibly the best film of all-time (if I had seen enough films to justify that statement, which I haven't). My only complaint is that some of the transitions between scenes feel a bit off, but this is a truncated version of the film that Leone had in mind, and they don't bother me too much in the grand scheme of things. The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is still my favourite of his films, it means too much to me, but Once Upon a Time in America is a beautifully melancholic masterpiece that caps off the legendary career of Sergio Leone with a flourish.