Picks and Pans Review: Once Upon a Time in America

updated 07/02/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/02/1984 AT 01:00 AM EDT

An epic about a gang that rises from New York's Jewish ghetto in the 1920s, this film is like a kosher Godfather. An Italian, Sergio (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) Leone, directed it, obviously intending his move from spaghetti Westerns to matzo ball "Easterns" to be a major statement. The movie does have its moments, and there may be a few hundred more of them scattered on the Ladd Company's cutting-room floor: The studio trimmed the film from Leone's original 227 minutes to its present 144 for U.S. release to cut down on the violence and cater to Americans' presumed limited attention spans. The film, photographed by Tonino Delli Colli, is striking to look at, especially its New York street scenes, which were shot in Manhattan, Montreal and a back lot near Rome. The acting is stunning. Robert De Niro, who turns understatement into a spectacle, and James (Against All Odds) Woods play the gang leaders. They're supported brilliantly by three relative newcomers: Bill Forsythe, Larry Rapp and the late James Hayden. (A remarkable combination of melancholy sweetness and strength, Hayden died at 29 of an apparent drug overdose while appearing on Broadway last year.) Elizabeth McGovern, as the dancer De Niro pines for, and Tuesday Weld, as a hooker, are powerful too. The youngsters cast as the principals in early scenes are also remarkable, especially Scott Schutzman, Rusty Jacobs and an intense young model, Jennifer Connelly. All of this cinematic beauty and talent goes for naught because of the absurd cuts and plot turns. Characters come and go with no explanations, time sequences get tangled and there's no chance for tension to build. Once upon a time in Hollywood, what may or may not have been a masterpiece got shredded into fragments. (R)

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