The Godfather Part II ***1/2
One Liner Review:
A good movie with some cool plot ideas, but nowhere near as good as the first movie, this one focusses a little too much on the business deals, whereas the first movie was all about family.
This is the movie that tells the business side of how Michael Corleone (Al Pacino,) runs things as the new head of the mafia family. In the last movie, we got to see how Michael became The Godfather. That film was all about his transformation. This sequel tells two stories in one. It both tells the actual follow-up story of what happens to Michael next, and how much it costs him, but it also tells the prequel story of Vito Corleone (the Marlon Brando character in the first film, now played by Robert De Niro.) If the first movie was about the way one established mafia boss ran things (Vito) and the way another one took over (Michael,) then this follow up tells the same kinds of stories in a different order. This time we see Michael as the established one, and learn how Vito (and the Corleone family,) came to be. All of that sounds great, and Vito’s story really is terrific, but Michael’s is far too much about business. He is dealing with a few too many situations all at once, and the movie (despite being three hours and twenty minutes long,) still can’t handle all of them. Not with a whole other movie to tell inside of this one, about young Vito. For most of the way through, this movie is fantastic, and filled with clever parallels to the first movie, but in the final portions of the film, as the movie finds itself unable to give us all the answers and resolutions we would like, things stop being so flawless.
The Godfather Part II isn’t nearly as good as the first movie, but it’s still a great film. This one both continues the story, from the original, and also offers tons of parallels to things that happened in the first film. This movie is actually two movies in one. There’s the story of Michael (Al Pacino,) who has taken over power of the Corleone Mafia Family. That story is a direct continuation of the first film, which ended with Michael becoming the new Godfather. But then there’s also the story of Vito (Michael’s father, played by Marlon Brando in the first movie, and by Robert De Niro here.) That story is a prequel to the first film. Considering that this movie is three hours and twenty minutes long, it really is like two movies in one (if each movie was about an hour and forty minutes or so, which is a pretty standard running time.)
The fractured narrative of having half of this movie take place before the first film and half of it take place after the first film, doesn’t stop there. Already, that’s incredibly creative and ambitious (both the events of the first movie and the second come from a single book by Mario Puzo.) And director Francis Ford Coppola was given the reigns to pretty much do anything he wanted here, after the success of the first movie. So he does. He plays with time, quite a bit. Aside from that he is telling two movie length stories in one, and aside from the idea that one of those stories takes place before the first film, and one of them after the first film, there’s also a scene at the end of the movie that happens right before the events of the first film. It’s a flashback to a time when the family was still close, and it features Sonny, Fredo, Michael, Connie (the four siblings,) as well as Tom Higgins and Carlo (Connie’s soon to be husband.) The only one missing is Brando. That scene helps bridge the movies together, showing Michael right after college, and right before going off to fight in Vietnam. It shows that Sonny is the one who introduced Connie to Carlo (very ironic considering that Sonny’s fate is based on his reaction to Carlo being abusive to Connie. Now we see why Sonny might have felt guilty about their relationship.) And the scene shows the love between the siblings. It shows family together, and Michael reflecting on it. This sequel is very much about Michael losing his family.
The loss of family, versus keeping one’s family together is one of the major themes of this movie. Michael and his father had very different perspectives about that. For Vito, everything was about family. We see it in the De Niro flashbacks as he helps take care of the kids. We see it as Vito finds ways to see everybody he needs to during the wedding and then get out and join the people afterwards. Michael on the other hand is all business. He doesn’t put family above others. And it costs him his family, including his brother, Fredo (who Michael has assassinated,) and his wife, Kaye, who has an abortion without telling Michael, and then leaves him. At one point, Michael asks his mother if his father ever worries about losing his family. Michael’s mother responds that that’s no possible. You can’t lost your family. And to that, Michael response, “times are changing.”
To a certain extent, he’s right. Back in Vito’s time, the mafia was needed. It was needed in order to help people out and grant favors to people who were having problems that they couldn’t resolve on their own. We see it when a woman comes to Vito asking him to help settle things with her landlord who is kicking her out. We also see it when the local boss. Don Fenuche, takes advantage of his fellow immigrants. Fenuche first gets Vito fires from his job (an honest living,) in order to have him replaced by Fenuche’s nephew. And then Fenuche demands payment from Vito and his friends, who are trying to start a business. So Vito kills him. But in Michael’s time, somebody powerful dan take advantage of him, (the senator,) and even insult him and his family, right to his face, and there’s very little Michael can do about it.
That scene with the senator comes at the beginning of the movie. Whereas the first movie began with a wedding, this second movie begins with a confirmation (both are huge parties at the house / compound of the head of the Corleone family. And both involve the Don taking meetings with people in his office.) In the first movie, Don Corleone took three meetings and they were mostly about family and doing favors for people involving their families. In the second movie, Michael takes four meetings (including one with his sister, Connie, who has just come to see him for money,) and with Michael, the meetings are all about business. He meets with the senator for help in getting a gambling license, with Johnny Ola, the number two man to Heiman Roth, (a boss down in Miami,) and with Frank Pantangelo, one of Michael’s Captain in New York. Of the four meetings, three of the four characters insult Michael (Connie, the Senator, and even Pantangelo, who is angry that Michael won’t help him out with putting muscle on some guys called the Rosato Brothers.) The only one who doesn’t insult Michael is Heiman Roth’s man, and later in the movie we will find out that they guy is trying to have Michael killed.
So whet do these four meetings mean in comparison to those of the first movie? First, the insults imply that Michael’s business is no longer about respect. It’s no longer about family or doing favors. Other than Johnny Fontaine, the actor, in the first movie, none of the meetings were about business st all. In the sequel, it’s the exact opposite. One of the meetings is about family (the one with Connie,) and then all the rest are about business. In the first movie, the characters who met with The Godfather (other then Johnny,) were pretty much never heard from again. There was so much story in that movie that they didn’t need these meetings to do anything more then introduce us to The Godfather. In the sequel, the meetings all play into the later storylines that will take place during the course of the film. Heiman Roth and the Rosato Brothers will both become Michael’s enemies, and the Senator will be the guy that Michael needs to get in his corner.
More on that in a moment. First, two more quick comparisons with the meetings. Vito’s meetings in the first movie all took place with closed shades during the day. He got the meetings done and then went out to join the party. Michael’s meetings take place in front of a large opened window, and go into the evening. This either means Michael is not very good at handling the meetings, and getting them over with, or he doesn’t mind insulting his guests, making them wait until the evening to meet with him. The closed shades in the first Godfather tell us Vito respects privacy, and the dim room helps make him want to get out of there faster. In Michael’s case, the open window, luxurious room is like shoring off to his guests. No privacy, you can only meet him at night, and he is certainly in no rush to be done. So much different.
Now back to the Senator. In the first Godfather movie, the characters who insulted Vito the most was the movie producer. He didn’t do it to Vito’s face, but to Tom Higgin who was there on Vito’s behalf. And this producer was met with a dead, bloody horse head in his bed when he woke up one morning. In the sequel, the character who insults Michael the most is the Senator. He is met with a dead, bloody prostitute in his bed when he wakes up one morning. And in both cases, Tom Higgin is there to set it up or clean it up. Higgin is the one who shows up to the Senators room, in one of Michael’s Las Vegas hotels, to help deal with what happened. While the parallel between the two movies is great, the final button on the Senator story could have been better. It comes during a hearing, late in the movie, with the senator recusing himself from the hearing. So much for helping Michael out. But the Senator does make some remarks about the great Italian people in America, which is funny because of how much it contrasts what he said in his first scene, meeting with Michael, where he talked about hating Italians. At least there’s that huge change, (even if it’s just for show.)
There are plenty of other parallels throughout the movie. In the first Godfather, there was an attempted assassination on Vito in the streets, that was a failure. In the second movie, there are three failed assassinstion attempts. One on Michael, one on Frank Pantangelo, and one on Heiman Roth, in his hospital room. But the one that most closely parallels the Vito attempt is the assassination attempt on Michael. One night, while up in his bedroom with Kaye, Michael notices that the curtains are opened, and wants to know why. Suddenly he realizes it, jumps to the floor, and bullets start shooting through the windows. Somebody on the inside (literally,) opened his curtains so that Michael could be shot. But who was it? Who opened the curtains? We never get that answer, and that’s a mistake.
The assassination attempt on Frank Pantangelo is really a parallel story to what happens to Luca Brasi in the first movie. Both attacks happen in a bar with the member of the Corleone family going to a meeting. Both happen when the character is ambushed. And both are on characters who are, or have been, loyal up until this point. In the case of what happens to Pantangelo, the assassins say “Michael Corleone sends his regards,” even though they don’t actually work for Michael. They work for the Rosato Brothers and Himan Roth. But they say this in case Pantangelo somehow survives, or in case anyone at the bar overhears them and then goes on to talk to someone about what they saw and heard. I guess that’s a strategy, in this business. And it certainly pays off here, as Pantangelo turns states evidence against Michael as an informant.
While this movie definitely deals more with business and betrayals than the first movie did, the first movie was all about Michael and his transformation. By the time of the sequel, he has already been fully formed and in power. For his story, in this movie, it is all about how taking that position costs Michael his family. It’s basically a complete downfall storyline for him. Most movies feature a rise and then a fall. Since this one’s Michael story is all about the fall, the rise has to come from somewhere else. And it does. It comes from the story of Vito.
The young Vito story serves as a sort of prequel. It shows how the Corleone family really got its start, (literally… Vito’s last name was not Corleone, and we see him take on this name when an agent on Ellis Island changes it.) In the last movie, we saw how Michael became The Godfather, but we never saw how Vito became him. This movie switches it up. This time Michael is already The Godfather, and so it’s time to see how Vito became him. Has there ever been a movie before that serves as both a prequel and a sequel at the same time? There might be, but certainly not to this extent. The movie goes all the way back to Vito as a child in Italy. It begins with title cards telling the audience that his father was murdered by the local Don, and then his brother swore vengeance and went into hiding. The first scene of the movie is the funeral procession for Vito’s father. While it is taking place, a gunshot off, and suddenly there is a dead body on the ground. This is Vito’s brother, who came out from hiding to pay his respects (maybe he was in the woods still and just wanted to view the procession.)
So now young Vito’s father and brother have been murdered. It is just Vito, left with his mother. She takes him to the Don and begs for the Don to spare the life of her last son. He refuses and she pulls a knife on him. Talk about an exciting opening. He and his men end up shooting her, but not before Vito runs away. He is hidden by friends of his family who help him escape to America. And that brings us to a ship pulling into Ellis Island, and views of the Statue of Liberty. We end the sequence with Vito in quarantine, staring out the window of a cell, looking at the statue and realizing things might not be as great or as easy as he was always told. The statue, which always seemed like a symbol of freedom to him, is now overlooking his cell, and seems to represent hardship.
It might have been nice to see a little bit more of Vito as a child in old New York. Who did he stay with, once released from Ellis Island? How did he grow up? The next time we see him, he is working an honest job as a delivery man, and a neighbor of his, (A young Clemenza, played by Bruno Kirby,) asks Vito to hide some guns for him for a week, until he can pick them up. This starts his life of crime. We see it go from the gun hiding to the murder of Don Feducci, to the sitting at an office as people come in looking for him to help them with granting favors and exerting muscle. There is a lot to like about this story, including the sequence that leads to the murder of Don Feducci, (Vito following him through a festival by climbing from one rooftop to the next, all while watching his target, is terrific,) to the comedy of a guy who is intimidated by Vito not being able to open the door to leave his office. Watching Vito become the Godfather, is definitely the best thing about this movie.
What isnt nearly as powerful or interesting is the Michael story. There’s just a little too much going on with this one, to the point where we never get full, clear answers, (who opened the curtains?) or see all the characters. Do we ever see the Rosato Brothers, that we keep hearing about? Not only is Michael dealing with that betrayal, which includes Fredo, Heiman Roth, the Brothers, and Johnny Ola, but he’s also dealing with the Senator, getting a casino license, and a senate / criminal hearing. And on top of that, he’s dealing with his wife, and what he sees as her betrayal of him. And all of this is just half of the movie. No wonder this one is three plus hours.
The problem, as the movie rounds the corner to make its way to the finish line, is that it appears very little has been cut. Whereas everything in the first half seemed pretty crucial, by the end of the second half, stories and conversations seem to be just dragging on. The movie ends with three deaths. Fredo, Himan Roth, and Frank Pantangelo. Of those three, the Pantangelo ending is the one that goes on too long (although the failed assassination attempt of Himan Roth at a hospital isn’t so necessary either.) With Pantangelo, we’ve got Tom Higgin coming to see him in prison, Pantangelo talking about Roman emperors, and then Pantangelo taking his own life in a tub. And by that point, we’ve run out of patience. Getting full stories for both Michael and Vito is enough. We just don’t need anymore.
The final portions of the film do have a number of problems that together add up. The senator’s contribution to the senate hearing is anti-climactic, (he just recuses himself, whereas he should be helping Michael, since he owes Michael for getting him out of that prostitute situation.) The Frank Pantangelo and Tom Higgin scene and talk about Gladiators is very unnecessary. And it would have been nice to get an answer as to who opened those curtains / let the assassins on the property. It’s the same person who killed the two assassins, and we never find out who that person was. Notice that none of these problems is in the Vito story. That story is pretty perfect. If there was one thing to nitpick about that, it would be that we don’t get to see Vito as a child in New York, and how he survived. The last time we see him as a child is on Ellis Island, and then after that, he’s an adult. But if we did get that content, the movie would just be even longer, (it certainly could have been substituted in place of the gladiator story, though.)
But up until those final portions of the film, the movie is very good. The young Vito story is fantastic, and the Michael story has a lot going for it. When the would-be assassins shoot through his bedroom window and Michael orders his men to find those guys alive, while they are still on the property, and bring them to him, he knows that they will most likely be found dead. He knows that the person who kills them is the same person who let them in to begin with. It’s a nice little mystery as to who this person is, and even though it doesn’t get resolved, it’s still kind of fun. The Fredo betrayal story is also fun. We never get s clear answer as to exactly what Fredo did, but it’s pretty obvious that his actions crossed a line and cost Michael a lot of pain. And then there are all the parallels between the first movie and this movie, and how director Coppola both does world building to expand the story, and also features similarities to show that this is the world that these guys live in, and both Vito (the older version, in the first movie,) and Michael, have to deal with similar situations. There’s a lot to take in with this movie, and while the running time could have been trimmed a little bit, for the most part it is warranted. Not as good as the first movie, but still a hell of a film.