Review: Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray

Once Upon a Time in America Blu-ray boxSTUDIO: Warner | DIRECTOR: Sergio Leone | CAST: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams, William Forsythe, Joe Pesci
RELEASE DATE: 1/11/2011 | PRICE: Blu-ray $24.98
BONUSES: commentary, excerpt from Leone documentary
SPECS: R | 229 min. | Crime drama | 1.85:1 widescreen | DTS Master Audio 5.1 | English, French and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

The great Sergio Leone’s masterful Once Upon a Time in America (1984), the Italian auteur’s final movie, remains one of the greatest “outsider” films about America — an epic, hallucinatory dream of a movie about the social and criminal growth of the country as expressed through the lives, friendship and betrayals of two Jewish gangsters (Stone‘s Robert De Niro and Salvador’s James Woods) in New York.

When Once Upon a Time was first issued as a two-disc Special Edition DVD back in 2003, critics and fans cheered the exceptionally high quality of the image, which was reportedly partly due to the high bit rate. Not surprisingly, it looks even grander on high-definition Blu-ray — the enriched details and enhanced depths of the streets of New York’s Lower East Side in the early 1900s, Fat Moe’s speakeasy, Prohibition-era Miami and Chinatown’s illicit opium dens look simply exquisite. Ditto for the lines on the faces of Woods and De Niro, who age more than 50 years over the course of the film and always look just right.

Unfortunately, composer Ennio Morricone’s (The Mission) lush orchestral soundtrack does not benefit nearly enough from the new DTS Master Audio 5.1 mix. Filled with sumptuous arrangements and crisp woodwinds, the music brilliantly underscores the operatic aspects of the film’s complex, chronologically splinted 50-year narrative. Though the score plays acceptably enough on the Blu-ray, it didn’t overwhelm or transport me in the grand scale that I was expecting when watching this nearly four-hour saga about the American dream as depicted by a legendary Italian auteur.

Bonus features include all the extras that originally appeared on the aforementioned two-disc Special Edition DVD, including a commentary track by critic Richard Schickel that features more yada-yada-yada than it does substance.


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About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.