Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 9, 2017)
Whenever the subject of sequels that surpass their predecessors arises, a short list of the usual suspects emerges. The Empire Strikes Back, Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgment Day offer some of the most consistent and prominent examples.
However, the king of them all likely will always remain 1974ís The Godfather Part II. For one, it remains the only sequel ever to win the Oscar as
Best Picture, and itís also the sole continuation to merit inclusion on the American Film Instituteís Top 100 list, where it resides at number 32.
Thatís 30 places below its predecessor, 1972ís Godfather, which seems kind of unfair. Many think Part II offers a better film, though I suppose Godfather may have earned the higher ranking partially due to historical importance. It was a seminal flick, while Part II simply continued and refined its experience.
Personally, Iíd always agreed with the AFIís idea. While I thought Part II was a very good piece of work, I never could view it on the same level as Godfather. The latter seemed like a more visceral and involving experience, whereas Part II came across as cool and less directly stimulating.
Prior to this Blu-ray, Iíd seen Part II five or six times, and my opinion of it remained fairly consistent. However, now that Iíve watched it once more, I must admit that Iím starting to see its merits more clearly. Part II may not offer the same level of slam-bang moments found in its predecessor, but it may be that filmís equal nonetheless.
The Godfather Part II follows dual storylines. One continues the tale begun in the first movie, as we see the further development of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as the head of a crime syndicate.
When Godfather ended, Michael had consolidated his power via a bloody attack on his competitors, and by Part II - which takes place a few years later, toward the end of the 1950s Ė Michaelís become even more powerful. His side of the story shows his attempts to further develop the familyís interests Ė most notably via some possible investments in Cuba Ė while he deals with traitors within his organization.
In addition, Part II develops the early years of family patriarch Vito. Performed by Marlon Brando in the first film, Oreste Baldini briefly portrays the child version while Robert De Niro plays the don as a young man.
We watch Vitoís arrival in America after a Sicilian Mafioso kills his family, and we see him as he starts his own clan. Though he starts as an honest, hard-working guy, Vito soon sees the benefits of a life of crime, and when he takes on local don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), his course Ė and that of his family Ė is set.
Though the movie starts with Vitoís childhood, it interweaves the two tales in a fairly seamless manner. The technique easily could become distracting, but director Francis Ford Coppola manages to pull it off neatly, as the stories flow cleanly and remain involving. Although I admit I find Michaelís tale more interesting, both sides of the film earn equal prominence.
Without question, Godfather offers the showier movie of the first two, and Part II lacks some of the big personalities seen in its predecessor. Both Brandoís Vito and James Caanís Sonny were driving forces in the original film, and they presented larger than life attitudes.
On the other hand, Part IIís Michael remains a quieter sort. While the younger Vito foreshadows the man he would become, here he appropriately appears less commanding and forceful.
While the variations in tone may make it appear as though Part II is at fault somehow, it isnít - I mention them just to relate the differences between the two movies. As I mentioned earlier, the relative coolness of II used to lead me to find it inferior, and it remains a less iconic flick.
However, the filmís quieter, more introspective nature leads it to be satisfying nonetheless. On one hand, we witness the gradual evolution of Vito into a cold-blooded killer. The movie makes this growth seem almost inevitable, but it doesnít depict Vito as a stereotype or a one-sided personality.
As portrayed by De Niro, Vitoís a strong force but not one who does what he does without purpose or intelligence. De Niro ably makes the character feel like a younger version of Vito without resorting to cheap Brando imitations, and he deserved his Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Unfortunately, Pacino wouldnít grab an Academy Award for his performance as Michael, though I think he earned it. Actually, I believe he deserved that trophy for Godfather, where he was misclassified as a supporting actor. For Part II, he got Best Actor consideration but lost to Art Carney for Harry and Tonto.
(Interestingly, both Godfather and Part II snared solo nominations for Best Actor Ė Brando received the award for the first film Ė and a whopping three Best Supporting Actor nods apiece. For Godfather, Pacino, Caan and Robert Duvall all got nominations, while De Niro, Lee Strasberg and Michael V. Gazzo all received consideration for II. For the record, Caan, Pacino and Duvall all lost to Joel Grey for Cabaret.)
I felt Pacino should have won for Godfather. In that film, Michael was the only character who really showed development, and he was the center of the story.
Brando was terrific, but Vito was essentially a supporting role, and he didnít evolve in any real way. I suppose one could make the same argument for Michael in Part II, as the changes experienced by the character are much more subtle this time. He begins as a cold, distant man and ends the film in the same state.
However, Part II concentrates much more intently on nuance, and thatís where Pacinoís performance gets its passion. Although Michael finds himself increasingly lost in his criminal world, he maintains a perverse focus on his family. In a bizarre way, he truly seems to feel that he does what he does for the good of the family.
Unfortunately, all that this leads to is the dissolution of what Michael loves and cherishes. Pacino executes the slow transformation with tragic power and makes Michael one of the great film characters.
Admittedly, in some ways, Part II suffers from a factor that affects many sequels: it feels like a mild rehash of the first film. The Godfather was clearly the more original movie of the two, and I think thatís one reason why it continues to garner more attention.
While Part II lacks the force of its predecessor, it compensates through coherence and style. Part II seems like a better developed and implemented movie, and it definitely used a more daring style, as the dual storylines make Part II vastly more ambitious than Godfather.
Arguments about the superiority of either flick will likely continue ad infinitum, and I wonít attempt to resolve them. I continue to prefer the original film, but I must admit that Iím starting to develop a greater fondness for The Godfather Part II. It may hold up better to repeated viewings, as it communicates greater depth and subtlety each time. In any case, The Godfather Part II remains an excellent achievement that stands nicely next to its classic predecessor.