All in the Family
The Godfather Part II is produced and directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stars Al Pacino, Robert Duvall, Diane Keaton, Robert De Niro, Talia Shire, Morgana King, John Cazale, Mariana Hill, and Lee Strasberg. The film was the first sequel to ever win the Best Picture Oscar, while also winning Best Director (Coppola), Best Supporting Actor (De Niro), and Best Adapted Screenplay, going on to win a total of six Oscars out of eleven nominations.
The Godfather is considered to be one of the greatest films ever made in world cinema, so almost by default, any and all sequels could not possibly be as good. It just wouldn't seem humanly possible that someone, even the same people who worked on The Godfather, could extend upon the thought-provoking ideas and cultural influences that the first film introduced to world cinema and somehow make them even better. It would be like a professional athlete having the game of his life, and then to have the coach tell him/her to go out there again and have an even better game. To this day, there are many proud and accomplished movie lovers who won't hesitate to say The Godfather Part II is superior to the first film, and I have no quarrels with people who do believe as such. That is to say that I am not one of those people who will put The Godfather Part II above and beyond The Godfather. In fact, I won't hesitate to say that I do not find the film to be the all-time classic that almost everyone makes it out to be.
Put down your torches and pitchforks for a minute and hear me out:
Not by any stretch of the imagination do I find The Godfather Part II to be any sort of bad film. The acting, screenwriting, and direction are all top-notch and not even close to what you'd find in a bad movie. What I'm saying is that The Godfather Part II is a great film, but not a great great film. The first film was chock full of memorable moments: each and every one having a special meaning and moving the story forward in a powerful way. This film, however, only has a small handful of such memorable moments, although I will admit one of these moments (happening right near the end of the film) is more heartbreaking than anything the first film did. So what this is to say is that The Godfather Part II's mindset is on telling as much of its story as it can fit into its sprawling 200 minute run time, all the while giving us an even clearer picture on who exactly some of these characters are, and how they have evolved from the events that took place in The Godfather.
The Godfather Part II serves as both a sequel and a prequel to The Godfather. The sequel story follows Michael Corleone, who has become fully integrated into his role as Don of the Corleone crime family. After surviving an assassination attempt at his home, Michael travels to Miami to meet with a man he suspects to have planned the assassination: Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). At the same time, Michael must tend to other matters concerning his family's business, such as a Senate committee that is investigating organized crime. Michael's increasingly ruthless behavior and his constant time on the road causes his wife Kay (Diane Keaton) to feel alienated, as well as to feel fearful that Michael is becoming more of an endangerment to their children's' well-being. Meanwhile, the prequel parts of the film tell the backstory of Vito Corleone (De Niro) and his rise to power in the world of organized crime.
Giving a detailed plot synopsis of a Godfather film is a very challenging thing to do, especially as you try to avoid giving away any major spoilers. If someone were to ever ask what is the story of one of The Godfather films, such an explanation would boil down to explaining not necessarily a sequence of specific events that make up the story, but rather a situation that surrounds a select group of characters. Normally, a situation is the last thing you want your plot to be, but The Godfather puts on the guise o a situation so well, that first-time viewers might be a tad stumped that the movie actually does have a long string of events that do make up something resembling a plot. For the first Godfather, that was the transition of Michael Corleone from reluctant family outsider to the unforgiving new head of the family business. In The Godfather Part II, the string of events involves Michael investigating the assassination attempt on his life, and how his investigation leads him to become even more consumed with power and corruption. This is the film that truly defines Michael Corleone as one of cinema's all-time famous villains, memorable not just for his cold-blooded demeanor as the Don of the Corleone crime family, but as a man who shows to still feel something in his heart, even when it seems like his entire world is falling apart around him.
- Al Pacino's performance as Michael Corleone across all three Godfather films deserves all the praise it can get as one of cinema's all-time greatest performances. Pacino's skill with method acting is what brings out the most of Michael Corleone's character, with not one single moment of screen time implying that Pacino is giving anything less than 100 percent. Even something as simple as Michael pacing back and forth in a dark room or sitting down on a couch convey body language to tell us that whenever Michael is in a room, he is the man in charge. I think what I like the most about Pacino's acting as Michael is the intimidating look in his eyes, as if he is staring straight into someone's soul, drawing out their weaknesses, and feasting on them. There is not one single moment during the film in which Michael appears weak or vulnerable, even during more intimate moments when he tries to set things straight with Kay and save their marriage.
It's fascinating to think about that, at various times throughout the film, Michael hopes and prays that he does not have to rely on the immense power he holds, that he can resolve matters with the likes of Kay, Fredo, and Hyman Roth without having to resort to violence and other types of force. I think this is where Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo maintain a bit of Michael's humanity, in that Michael attempts to be fully conscious about who he is ruthless towards, while making sure that the violent and corrupt nature of his business stays as far away from his family as possible. Unfortunately, life doesn't go the way Michael hopes it goes, and it's as scary as it is heartbreaking to see the anger and sadness wash over Michael when he realizes that he has to make some difficult decisions. I'm purposefully being vague about this, because, y'know, giant-sized spoilers. So anyway, the monster that Michael wants to be only when he is conducting business, eventually overtakes him completely, leaving both his business partners and his own family in the crossfires. We only got a glimpse of this in the first film, so it was essential for The Godfather Part II to expand upon Michael's evolution, or should I say, descent, into the all-powerful crime boss he never thought he would become, and the film expands upon it beautifully.
- The editing as the movie goes back and forth between the past and present is as seamless as can be. While the overall plot spends more time on Michael's present-day story than on Vito's backstory, Coppola and Puzo's script make the perfect stopping points when one story pauses and the other continues, like the end of each chapter of a book that is told from several different points of view. Every segment spent with Vito, then Michael, and then Vito again gives us more insight into what drives these men and how the world of organized crime comes to affect their daily lives. It's fascinating to see the juxtaposition of one man having almost everything go to hell while another takes on a rags to riches style of life. One line of business can both tear a man's life apart and bring a man to a position of power he would never have dreamed of obtaining. It's another fine example of how essential editing is to a film production. The 70's is a goldmine of examples of masterclass editing.
- When it comes to those memorable moments that I was talking about earlier, The Godfather Part II can't help but fall short of what the first film did so well, especially in the way The Gdofather used violence to fuel its story telling and create the bridges that allowed the story to go from one point to another. It's not that The Godfather Part II has no memorable moments at all; it's just that, with the exception of one right near the end, they aren't anywhere near as hard-hitting as they should be, mostly because Coppola doesn't allow the creative juices to flow as much as he did with the first film. The kills, this time around, are a lot simpler and more straightforward, not ever transcending beyond anything but simple gun shots or lethal stabbing maneuvers, which sort of detracts from how cunning and unexpected these corrupt people can be. I suppose that's to say that it sort of ruins the organized part of "organized crime", as this time around, the Corleone family and their enemies act more like above-average criminals who know how to at least plan ahead. Unfortunately, they don't take that next step that The Godfather took on several different occasions: catch your enemy at their most vulnerable and strike with absolute precision. You won't find any horse heads or toll-booth massacres here. Just a lot of bloody, old-fashioned killing.
It certainly sounds like a chore to sit through the film's length 200 minutes, but with the seamless editing between the past and the present, as well as another awe-inspiring performance from Al Pacino, The Godfather Part II shouldn't feel anywhere near as long as it is. Trying to extend upon the film that ended up being one of the finest examples of film-making in history certainly sounded like an impossible task. Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo rose up to the challenge though, and they delivered a great sequel that gets it right in all the places it needed to, one being the next chapter in the story of Michael Corleone, and the second being the backstory of how Michael's father, Vito, rose to power. What we get this time from Michael is a character that evolves into one of the all-time greatest villains in cinema, one who, despite his unforgiving nature as the Corleone crime boss, never loses complete sight of his humanity. The violence that ensues isn't as hard-hitting and creative as before, which is what I think keeps The Godfather Part II from being on the same level as The Godfather. Still though, there's too much else to applaud, and for that, I have no hesitation to call The Godfather Part II not just one of the best Best Picture winners in history, but also one of the best sequels in cinematic history.
Recommend? Absolutely, and obviously, see The Godfather first.
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: