Kevin Jones’s review published on Letterboxd:
Checking in at just under four hours, Once Upon a Time in America takes a long time to say absolutely nothing unique. A gangster film, the film does nothing for the gangster genre that could not be accomplished in a far shorter runtime because oh my God is this thing long. It just takes forever to end and even then, I still had no idea why it took so long. I love gangster films with The Godfather Parts I and II being among my favorites. I even like Black Mass and Live by Night, which have hardly been universally beloved. Yet, I could not enjoy Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America. There are many repulsive elements included that exceed anything in a typical gangster film in terms of being just pure nasty, but even worse, the film is astronomically long. I cannot say this enough: IT IS TOO LONG. While there are moments of brilliance, they are suffocated out of this film through its enormity and ambition. It simply felt like Leone just kept adding scenes with no regard for whether or not they advanced the film at all or not. Its praise as a sprawling epic masterpiece feels quite odd to me and feels as if movie buffs everywhere just hail it as a masterpiece because Leone had to fight to get his cut released. Unfortunately, I disagree. Is it sacrilege to say that I agree with the studio here? Sure, Leone is the artist, but artists can be wrong. Here, he is way off. Perhaps the studio butchered the execution of cutting it down, but the 139 minute version sounds pure bliss. If I have to turn in my Cinephile Membership Card for holding this belief, I will gladly do so, especially if it means not suffering through 229 minutes of a film with unoriginal themes, bland characters, and irredeemable actions by some of the characters.
On the latter, the repeated use of rape as an action by our protagonist Noodles (Robert De Niro) is beyond disturbing. He rapes Carol (Tuesday Weld) and even rapes the girl he loves Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern). Yet, all the same, he is celebrated as our protagonist. Nobody condemns his actions. Hell, his rape of Carol is turned into comedic fodder as Noodles and his friends have her try and identify her rapist by showing her their penises. When he rapes Deborah, it is immediately followed up by him stalking her to the train station to Hollywood. Once more, he is never rebuked and is still shown as our protagonist and hero. This is horrifying to watch unfold and the more the film continued to have Noodles pretend to love Deborah in the aftermath of the rape, the more and more disturbed I became. It practically romanticizes this action and even Deborah does not seem to mind in the aftermath.
Somehow, however, the excessive use of rape perpetrated by a character we should feel some measure of sympathy towards is hardly the only character flaw in the film. Yes, sex is seen as merely paid for and rape by Leone in this film with the characters all demeaning to women unless they can sexually assault them or bully them into submission (women are constantly hit and yelled at in this film to an alarming degree, with it always reduced to comedic fodder with one man saying he was afraid to hit a girl for fear she would like it), but even worse, the characters are bland with a capital B. The amount of boring white guys in this film is shocking with none of them ever being fleshed out or developed beyond minor character identifiers. Though the film is alleged to have explored themes of childhood friendship, I never saw much of that as the film seems to forget it in favor of just romanticizing and turning into nostalgic fodder the rise of gangsters in New York during the prohibition era. The end result is the characters who are friends of Noodles just wind up being forgotten. Leone brings them back every once in a while and then away they go again. I forgot their names repeatedly and if one of them did not have a "cockeye", there is no way I would have ever recognized him.
That said, the film does admittedly concern itself far more with Noodles and Max (James Woods). Though both of them are good in the roles, the two just never have chemistry with one another. The bad dialogue in their scenes is only part of the problem. They never really convince as being friends. I forget most of the movie at this point because it is too long, but it felt like Max just disappeared forever. The only signs of their friendship being a couple bro hugs and then Max and Noodles paying for sex with the same girl but at different times. Otherwise, they are at each other's throats for the rest of the film with Max wondering openly if he should kill Noodles. By the end of the film, when they are both old, the same thing occurs with both of them just talking past each other and sharing no chemistry with one another. It just never really sold me on this. Many women complain about female friendship depicted through male eyes and how it misses the mark. Male friendship is equally hard to bring to life and one would think a man would be more at-home bringing that to life. Though Leone is a man, he just totally missed the mark here. For friends, they never seem to really click with one another.
As mentioned, the length is an issue as well. However, what exacerbates the length is how dull the film is and can become. The storyline just never intrigued me nor did it really grab me. This is largely, perhaps, because of the characters being so bland and uninteresting. But, it is also in part due to the film's unoriginality. It simply never justifies its existence, especially in the direct aftermath of The Godfather. It feels like a poor imitation at times of similar themes of greed and power. It lacks gravitas, power, and a storyline of similarly epic proportions. Instead, it just feels like three films jammed into one between the coming of age tale, the gangster tale, and the mournful and regretful old man tale. The three never gel even if Leone intercuts between the two at times and tries to blend them. Compared to The Godfather Part II, a film with similar themes of the rise of Don Corleone compared to the rise of Michael Corleone, this film just never really gels or compels. It simply floats by with scenes that go nowhere and moments that lacked to pull me in to make me actually care about the plot. The number of characters and subplots introduced that simply add to the length of the film rather than any other purpose (Treat Williams as Jimmy Conway/O'Donnell being a highlight of this, as is Danny Aiello's; neither come back in any meaningful way and just show the gang at work, but there is never any pay-off or intrigue accompanying these moments), it just never made me feel as though the length was justified. It was fluff with just rehashed moments from better gangster movies helping to fluff it up.
That said, I would still say it is worthy of 2 1/2 stars. Why? Because of technical aspects. The cinematography is breathtaking. There is one scene of the young boys walking on the street with one of them skipping in front of them. The sprawling city surrounding them and the long shot used by Leone is just beautiful. This is a common trend in the film with warm browns and the dark blacks of this world highlighting each frame. The end result is a film that is incredibly beautiful and easy to look at. Though the plot bored the heck out of me, the cinematography is absolutely impossible to ignore. Likewise, the costume design and production design are tremendous. Capturing 1900s-1920s New York terrifically with the dull grays and browns of the city juxtaposed with the buzzing nature of swing and speakeasies, the film is authentically crafted with terrific attention to detail in these sequences. Of every film that focuses in on this era in the United States, it is impossible to say it has been captured better than in Once Upon a Time in America. Finally, the score from Ennio Morricone is, naturally, beautiful. It makes the film feel poetic and a lyrical masterpiece, even in the moments when the film's writing and acting leave a lot to be desired. This score is the very example of how the music in a film can make the final product better. It brings it to life and breathes life into dead moments repeatedly and stands as yet another technical accomplishment of this film.
Too long, Once Upon a Time in America is not a film I would really revisit due to that length. Its length is hardly the only issue, as the awful characters, use of rape as comedy, and poor acting by major characters such as Elizabeth McGovern, who's lips have to wage holy war on her cheeks for her smile, the film is maligned by a variety of issues. That said, brilliant cinematography, production design, costume design, and score really help to elevate this film and nearly saves it from being just middle-of-the-road. Unfortunately, there is just not enough good to cancel out all of the bad. Even when there is, the sheer weight and length of this film does not serve to bring out Leone's vision in any stronger fashion. Instead, it has the opposite effect: it snuffs it out and leaves, in its place, a poorly paced film that is loaded with filler.