As the Rocky, Rambo, and even Police Academy films have all proved over the years, making sequels to movies people like is easy. Making said sequels live up to their predecessors’ standards is a bit harder, though it can be done (Aliens). Francis Ford Coppola didn’t just accomplish this for one of the most acclaimed films in cinematic history (The Godfather), but did it only two years after that masterpiece came out, having near-complete control over the production all the way through… and was greeted with some surprisingly mixed reviews.
Though the excellent performances, stunning cinematography, and Nino Rota’s unforgettably haunting score were still highly praised, The Godfather Part II’s very unconventional structure was initially viewed much less positively. Even Roger Ebert, who loved that quintessential first film, wound up declaring that “The stunning text of “The Godfather” is replaced in “Part II” with prologues, epilogues, footnotes, and good intentions.”* In a way, he’s right: Part II does simultaneously serve as an extended prologue and epilogue to its epic predecessor, and as a result, it admittedly is a tad messier. Unlike most sequels of this sort, however, Part II does all this in a way that actually enhances the events that came before—and after—it, not cheaply hinder them for the sake of making more money. Who knew.
Two stories are told in Part II: future “don” Vito Corleone’s (played to perfection by a young Robert De Niro, whose work here deservedly won him an Oscar) steady rise to power in the early 1900s, and current don Michael Corleone’s (Al Pacino) continuing moral decline in the late 1950s/early ‘60s. Are these tales really connected in any way, be it thematically or spiritually? Not really (though a second watch could very well change my mind on that)—in fact, they’re actually fairly at odds with each other, with Vito’s story being pretty simple and upbeat, and Michael’s being far darker and more complex.
I’m sure Coppola has a purpose for this. Perhaps he’s trying to show how the gangster life always involves danger and bloodshed, no matter if the people involved in it have good intentions (Vito) or bad ones (Michael). Perhaps he’s trying to contrast Vito’s and Michael’s lives to show just how different they really are, despite them both being part of the same mafia clan. Perhaps he’s even trying to show how the kind of business they’re both involved in can have different effects on different people (Vito eventually becomes a caring family man, while Michael slowly transforms into a cold, unforgiving sociopath). Either way, they’re both so powerfully told that I’m all but forced to ignore their slight tonal inconsistencies.
If somebody were to ask me which story impacted me more, however, I would unhesitatingly choose Michael’s. Not to say that Vito’s chunk of the film is shabby by comparison—in fact, on top of it being beautifully sepia-tinted, it documents the life of NYC immigrants around the turn of the 20th century quite well, and always kept me cheering for the up-and-coming Vito, even when he resorts to violently slaying his enemies in order to gain more fame and respect**.
However, it’s the extension of Michael’s slow downward spiral, the heartbreaking events that occur after an assassination attempt on him and his increasingly distant wife, Kay, leaves him paranoid and angry, that truly makes Part II essential viewing. Few forget the scene where Kay reveals the truth about her apparent “miscarriage”, but it’s the film’s final moments that send the most chills down viewers’ backs. Although the original theatrical trailer doesn’t show too much of this, it does irrationally give away the very final shot (as well as other powerful moments, albeit also completely out-of-context): a shot that hasn’t left my mind once in the many days since I saw the film.
Obviously, those frustrated with the first Godfather’s incredibly slow pace, intimidating length (this time around, it hits 200 minutes—in other words, nearly 3 and a half hours), and often convoluted events will be just as unsatisfied here (and are advised again to check out the excellent Goodfellas for something more lightweight). For everybody else, however, this isn’t just one of the greatest sequels ever made, but an offer nobody interested in cinema should ever refuse. I know how groan-worthy of a reference that is, but I don’t care.
*Ebert did warm up to Part II a lot more later, upping it to 4/4 stars (as opposed to the 3/4 stars he originally gave it, which—are you sitting down?—is one point lower than the rating he gave to the much-hated Part III) and rightfully putting it among his “Great Movie” selections. However, he still had his nitpicks: “But I am not sure the flashbacks [to Vito’s growth] strengthen the film. I would have appreciated separate films about young Vito and the evolution of Michael. Never mind.”
**And now for the dumb logical error only I care about: near the end [SPOILER ALERT], Vito dispatches an old nemesis by brutally knifing him… but when the camera cuts back to his dead body, there’s hardly any blood coming out of this massive wound. Maybe this is because Coppola didn’t have that much fake gore while shooting that particular scene, or maybe it’s because he wanted to avoid an X rating (still fairly mainstream around that time, but hardly consistent with the previous film’s solid R), but it did kinda distract me nevertheless. It’s not enough to change my rating for the film or anything, of course, but still.