Review by J.T. Johnson
ORIGINAL RELEASE DATE: December 12, 1974
DIRECTOR: Francis Ford Coppola
CINEMATOGRAPHY: Gordon Willis
WRITERS: Mario Puzo, Francis Ford Coppola
MUSIC: Nino Rota
“The Godfather Part II” is director Francis Ford Coppola’s magnificent follow-up to the 1972 original film. Like the review I wrote for the original, I must state that I’m only writing this to add my voice to the millions of others who love this movie. It is rightly regarded as one of the finest examples of cinematic storytelling, but is it as good as “The Godfather”?
The debate on this has raged for decades. Some think that it is a worthy sequel but doesn’t quite match the first one while others think that this is one of the first sequels that surpassed the original. I must admit that I don’t think the film matches up, but only slightly.
Before we get to all the good stuff, I’ll go ahead and explain why I don’t think it quite lives up to the original. It’s just a little too long for its own good. The same story could have been told in a slightly shorter amount of time.
Cutting about 20 minutes would have been better. For example, there are long scenes meant to set up tension, but they run a little long and ironically end up cutting the tension of the moment down a bit. Cutting these scenes down a bit would have tightened them up and reduced the overall runtime down a little.
The other flaw is that Michael’s (Al Pacino) story of him fighting against Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) is simply not as exciting as Michael’s rise to power in the original film.
Beyond that, though, everything pretty much works. Even though it’s not as good, Michael’s fight with Hyman does lead to some surprising and tragic twists along the way. The story is also helped by powerhouse performances by Pacino and John Cazale as Michael’s older brother, Fredo.
The performances all around are great but Pacino and Cazale excel when they’re on screen together. Pacino continues his descent into the underworld and has become more disconnected from everybody in the family he’s sworn to protect. Cazale plays the dumb Corleone brother and we learn just how resentful he is that he was walked over in order for Michael to become the new Don.
“Part II” is also partly a prequel to the original film. While we follow Michael’s continuing journey as the Don, we occasionally jump back into the past and learn the history of Vito Corleone, the original Godfather played by Marlon Brando in the first film. This time, the young Vito is played by Robert De Niro, who won an Oscar for his portrayal in the movie.
This means that there is a reversal of sorts in this movie. Whereas we saw Michael’s ascent in the last film while Vito was already the legendary mob boss, we see Vito’s rise to power here while Michael works to cement his own legacy in the mafia. Also, I found Vito’s story to be much more interesting than Michael’s.
De Niro captures the subtle nuances that Brando gave the character while also avoiding a simple imitation of what came before. I do feel like this is a young man who came to America looking for a better life but ended up resorting to a life of crime just to feed his family. Young Vito’s life was filled with violence almost from the start, but yet he has a kindness throughout even after he becomes a man with power.
Vito is doing what he does mostly for his family and the people around him seem to understand that. Michael is also trying to do the things he does for the sake of his family. The difference is that his emotions are being slowly stripped away and he is fearful that he will lose everyone close to him, including his wife Kay (Diane Keaton).
The tone of the movie, from the solid direction by Francis Ford Coppola to the pitch-perfect cinematography is spot on. This movie feels like s true continuation of “The Godfather” and this is really the most important part. It may have just a few slight blemishes when compared to the original masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop “The Godfather Part II” from being one of the best sequels (and prequels) every made!