The film tells two stories at the same time. First, we learn about how Vito Corleone (played as a young man by Robert De Niro) became the Godfather of the most successful crime family in America. After the death of his parents to the hands of a cruel Sicilian Don, little Vito is sent to America by friends of the family, where he grows up following the path of the average blue collar immigrant. He has more ambition than that, though, and he figures that abiding by the law won’t get him far. Years will take him from a petty thief to the most powerful man in New York.
And that brings us to the second story, which takes place after the first film. We meet again with Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), who has replaced his father as head of the Family. He wants to make their activities legitimate, but it ain’t that easy, as he’s already caught up in a dangerous web of alliances and betrayals, double and triple-crossings, which will have him facing assassination attempts, judiciary investigation and family turmoil, on top of having to deal with his increasingly distant wife Kay (Diane Keaton), the unreliability of his brother Fredo (John Cazale) and the resentment of his sister Connie (Talia Shire). Michael Corleone might lead a huge family, but damn if he doesn’t feel desperately alone.
Both stories are fascinating, but maybe not quite as much as the tale of the reluctant but inevitable succession of Vito Corleone by his son as told in the first film. This time, Francis Ford Coppola had much more to do with the story than Mario Puzo, and I’m not sure if it’s a good thing. One of the original film’s strengths was the way it adapted the novel. There was an epic feel to it, a satisfying balance between character development and tense confrontations. Plus, there’s the way it portrayed gangsters like no other film before. In the sequel, it doesn’t feel as fresh, or mythic. I sometimes felt like some dialogue or scenes were handled specifically to tap back into the first film’s mood.
What this sequel does have that’s different is the idea of alternating between two stories, but it doesn’t enhance the narrative, au contraire. I think that each story on its own would work better. Together, it makes it harder to get as involved in any of them. The dramatic progression of Michael Corleone’s personal and professional struggles, for instance, would be even more affecting if the tension wasn’t constantly interrupted by the extended flashbacks.
Now that I’ve laid down the reasons why I think the first film was better, I don’t want you to get the wrong impression and think that “Part II” is a worthless sequel. Al Pacino is still incredible as Michael Corleone, delivering a performance restrained yet very powerful. You really feel the tragedy of his character, how his attempt to honor his father’s memory makes him discard his own values and lose the things he cares about. Robert De Niro does solid work too as the young Vito Corleone in the early century stretches of the film. It’s an interesting and well controlled performance, since De Niro had to adapt his acting style to Marlon Brando’s, who created the role. He speaks Italian in a throaty voice for pretty much the whole film, and he pays justice to the character. I particularly liked the street festival sequence when he makes a decision and takes actions that will turn him from a working man into the “protector” of his neighborhood. Diane Keaton also impresses as Michael’s wife. Their second to last scene together, in which she shocks him with a revelation, is particularly riveting.
So, in the end, “The Godfather part II” does have all the ingredients to be a masterpiece, from the writing to the direction and cinematography and acting and everything else. It’s just not quite on the level of the original, which is no less than one of the best films of all time.