Thursday, April 7, 2016

AFI Top 100: #32 "The Godfather Part II"

Robert DeNiro in The Godfather Part II (1974)

Every time I watch this movie with another person, the same debate always occurs: whether AFI's #32 movie, The Godfather Part II, is better than its predecessor, The Godfather. I have plenty of thoughts on the matter, but honestly, I don't have an answer. They're both far too incredible to place below or above one another, and far too different to compare. A fact it's best to state upfront in this critique, I think. But what I don't have any issue saying is that this movie is—hands down, no contest—the greatest sequel of all time. It is truly a masterpiece, and while discussing Part II will surely betray my thoughts on Part I (coming in at #2 on this AFI list), that's just a fact we'll all have to accept. Because you could have one with the other—but you shouldn't.

Following the violent closing events of 1972's The Godfather, the Corleone crime family, through the leadership of the founding Don's youngest son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino), has reestablished its influence and power in 1958 among New York's original Five Families—by picking up and leaving New York City for the tranquility of Lake Tahoe, CA. While Michael attempts to expand his organization with business ventures in Cuba, Las Vegas and Hollywood, he must also suss out a betrayal in the family that may be closer than he could ever imagine.

Interspersed with the trials Michael faces is the story of his father, Vito Corleone's (Robert De Niro), arrival in New York City as a young immigrant from Sicily in 1917. Growing up and attempting to make an honest living in Hell's Kitchen, Vito witnesses the rise of organized crime and extortion in his community, along with its negative impact on local families and businesses; soon, it comes knocking on his door. After making friends with some local, amateur criminals and experiencing an increase in confidence, Vito plans and carries out the murder of commanding mob goon, Don Fanucci, establishing himself as the new protector of the neighborhood—the Corleone crime family is born.

Where Part II makes its mark is in the emotional gravitas of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. This is not the Michael we came to know in the original film. He is hardened, he is methodical, he is loyal—but he's also unforgiving. Betrayal is something that simply cannot be overlooked in Michael's world, and there is no greater example of this than in Pacino's scenes with Diane Keaton, who reprises her role as his concerned wife, Kay. The film begins, and already you can see the fraying around the edges of their relationship. It's no wonder, considering the final shot of Part I, which didn't bode well for her maintaining a relationship with Michael.

And it just devolves from there. In some of the best scenes of the film, Michael and Kay spar, with Kay choosing to reveal things that—we all know—she should never say to a guy who runs a massive crime organization. But Keaton never shrivels up in his presence, and she certainly brings out more emotions from Pacino than anyone else in the film can claim. Every scene between them is a wonder.

John Cazale as Michael's older brother, Fredo, the black sheep of the family, finally gets a chance to shine in the sequel. It's Pacino's chemistry with Cazale that ties us all up in knots as the story plays out, and the complexity of their relationship adds so much richness to both of their characters. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Robert Duvall as the Corleone's lawyer and adopted brother, Tom Hagen. Tom, unlike Fredo, is too steadfast and true to be emotional, or to bring out the worst in Michael. This makes him a less dynamic character, to be sure, but no less important in the grand scheme of the Corleone family.

And then there's De Niro. As Young Vito, his scenes are almost entirely spoken in Italian, and he plays the role with such modesty and confidence, it's easy to forget this was one of his breakout roles. Before Taxi Driver, before The Deer Hunter, we got to experience De Niro flesh out and give tangible life to a role that Marlon Brando made into an icon. People came to see Part II for Al Pacino as the new Don, but De Niro held his own and gave so much more substance to the story of the Corleone's than I think anyone would have expected—except maybe for those who read the books.

Francis Ford Coppola's direction may only be second, though, to Nino Rota's score. The musical themes carry throughout both films and incorporate the beauty of Sicily into a story that actually attempts to go back to its roots. Coppola, though, deserves the credit for fusing all of the above pieces together in a way that has stood the test of time. In fact, it's improved. It is not easy keeping this story organized. The number of characters, the betrayals, the back-room dealings... it can all lead to a very convoluted cast of characters and events. And admittedly, even after repeat viewings, I will forget who certain people are, their names mixing together into an vat of Italian pronunciations that don't always stick in my brain. But that's what makes the puppetry of it all so fascinating. Coppola has no interest in going slowly, or providing you a map to follow. There is too much intrigue, and all that matters is the way it comes together so beautifully.

What more can be said? The achievement of Coppola's first two Godfather films has never again been replicated (let's just pretend that The Godfather Part III didn't happen, agreed?), and it's because of this that every component of this film is to be celebrated. The potential for fragmenting in a story this dense can't be overstated, yet it manages to keep an even-keel from beginning to end. Likewise, a story literally split in two tends to lean audience interest towards one plot line over the other, but that also never happens. Pacino and DeNiro lead their timelines with captivating performances, playing two of the most complex and celebrated characters in film history.

The confounding factor for me is that this movie isn't higher on the list. It is largely considered to be as good, if not better, than its predecessor—I truly believe that, in the next iteration of the AFI Top 100, this will easily crack the Top 20. It is a quintessentially perfect movie; a rare description for any movie, much less a sequel. And it does what every sequel should, but most fail to do: make the original better. Both are up there with my personal all-time favorites.

Rating: ★★★★★ / 5 stars

[Watch the Trailer] | [Read More AFI Top 100 Reviews] | [images © Paramount Pictures]

Check back next time for #31 on the list, The Maltese Falcon — or better yet, have your own viewing party and watch along with us!

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