Sergio Leone's final movie, in the works for a decade or more, is a true epic, a great, sprawling folly, filled with big and small moments, rage and regret, noise and quiet, pugnaciousness and poetry. Based on a novel by Harry Grey, Once Upon a Time in America was infamously chopped to pieces upon its original 1984 American release, and, after a disastrous reception, was restored to a 229-minute version by year's end. In 2012, it was further restored to 251 minutes (just a tad shy of Leone's preferred 269-minute version). The complex structure includes many flashbacks and flash-forwards as well as an opium-fueled sequence or two, so it requires strict attention.
Although it's punctuated with scenes of brutal violence, including two hard-to-watch rape scenes, the movie is an overall slow burn with many sequences so quiet and reflective that they could be dreams. Many of Leone's touches, such as his use of silence to delay violence, are still here, but more refined for the urban landscape. Ennio Morricone contributes a beautiful, melancholy score, led by a flute that Forsythe's character plays on-screen. The cast, also including Joe Pesci, Burt Young, and Treat Williams, is uniformly excellent. (Louise Fletcher appears exclusively in restored footage.) Once Upon a Time in America is an essential entry in the gangster genre, worthy of mention alongside the Godfather movies and GoodFellas.