Classic Movie Review: The Godfather, Part II (1974)


Title: The Godfather, Part II
Release Date: December 20, 1974
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Production Company: Paramount Pictures | The Coppola Company
Summary/Review:

The follow-up to The Godfather features two intertwining stories of the Corleone family.  The first is a prequel about Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) from around 1901 to 1923.  As a boy, Vito witnesses his family murdered by a Sicilian Mafia don and flees to the United States (with some great scenes on shipboard and at Ellis Island). Establishing himself in New York’s Lower East Side, Vito takes on an extortionist who exploits the poor immigrants and becomes a trusted member of the community of whom the people can ask favors.

The other storyline picks up after The Godfather in 1958 when Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has moved the family to Nevada, but has yet to legitimatize their business.  After an assassination attempt, Michael travels to Florida, New York, and Cuba (just as the revolution is brewing) to try to firm up his business partnerships and track down his rivals.  The movie depicts Michael in a downward spiral as he’s unable to maintain the closeness of the family the way his father did as he pursues a more capitalist course.  As a result his relationships with his wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), and brother, Fredo (John Cazale) begin to unravel.

De Niro does a great job of channeling Marlon Brando while looking a lot like Al Pacino.  Meanwhile, Pacino gets a lot of time for serious brooding.  Some good performances also come from newcomers Lee Strasberg as Hyman Roth, Michael’s main antagonist, and Michael V. Gazzo as Frank Pentangeli, a Corleone family caporegime who remains in New York and represents the family’s old ways.  I also like that Bruno Kirby – of future City Slickers and When Harry Met Sally fame – plays a younger version of Vito’s friend Clemenza. Women characters are once again treated as non-entities in the “manly-man” movie.

I like how historical events such as Estes Kefauver’s Senate investigations into organized crime and the Cuban revolution are worked into the story.  The sets and costumes of early-20th century New York and the 1950s mid-century modern are also really well-done.

Many people consider The Godfather, Part II to be better than the original, but I don’t see it.  There are a lot of interesting parts, but the movie is very episodic and just doesn’t flow into a cohesive story the way the first one does.  There are a lot of parallels between the two movies. Whereas the first movie starts at a wedding, the second features a first communion party early on.  This communion party shows how Michael has lost touch with his Italian heritage by forging partnerships with WASPy people in Nevada, but it’s not as good at establishing characters as the wedding.  Similarly, the climax of the movie features simultaneous “hits” and deaths, but it feels like a pale imitation of the christening scene in The Godfather.

It’s still a good movie but not one that will make my all-time favorites list.

Rating: ***

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