Bruce Fretts
June 13, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Once Upon a Time in America

Current Status
In Season
Robert De Niro, James Woods, Danny Aiello, Jennifer Connelly, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams
Sergio Leone
Drama, Mystery and Thriller

We gave it a B-

By now, the story is as familiar as a fairy tale: Once upon a time, Sergio Leone’s career-capping epic was desecrated (for the original U.S. theatrical release, the film was butchered by more than an hour).Months later, the material was restored and that new edition was hailed as a masterpiece. Trouble is, Leone’s decades-sprawling saga of the tangled friendship between two Jewish gangsters (Robert De Niro and James Woods) remains a patience tester at any running time (and the ”special edition” adds only two minutes of unneeded footage to the longer cut, including a protracted version of De Niro’s rape scene with Elizabeth McGovern). TIME critic Richard Schickel argues in a provocative commentary track that much of the film is actually an opium dream, but that doesn’t excuse the brutally slow pace and one-dimensional acting. De Niro’s Mafia movies with Coppola and Scorsese are delectably overstuffed with plotlines and characters, but this one’s an empty cannoli.

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