To follow one of the most acclaimed films of all time is a near-impossible challenge, especially when its iconic main character is dead. Here the Godfather goes farther via a prequel narrative (which forms part of the original novel) featuring Vito Corleone as a young man (Robert De Niro); and an original sequel story featuring the new Don, Michael (Al Pacino), after his gamble on a move to Nevada.
The essence of The Godfather is family, and here we see the sacrifices Vito makes for his and cost to Michael of neglecting his. Michael is completely oblivious to the needs of his wife Kay (Diane Keaton), and his quest for vengeance against his enemies leaves him alone, while his father builds an empire based on favours and generosity.
The scale is expanded against the backdrop of historical events such as the Cuban Revolution. Michael has moved the family up in the world, with links to influential senators, adding to the prescient critique of American high society and capitalism, tolerating those who do wrong if they are wealthy and superficially respectable.
Compared to the original it has a less focused narrative resulting in a longer running time without a clear endpoint. It’s also less iconic, even if Pacino and Keaton are on amazing form. The sound and visual quality isn’t quite on a par with the original, although the score is even better, and 1920s New York is full of rustic charm.
De Niro is brilliant as the young Don, capturing Brando’s essence while making him a plausible younger man (the only time two people have won Best Actor for playing the same character). There are few characters left from the first film, yet some such as Connie (Talia Shire) and Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) are barely developed, representing a missed opportunity, although the increased role for Fredo (John Cazale) is welcome.
It has many parallels with Pacino’s later film Scarface, albeit done in a more subdued way. Both films feature an impoverished immigrant turning to crime in America, as well as Pacino sliding into a ruthless evil and alienating those around him. They also both demonstrate his unique ability to sit in a chair in a compelling way.
The result is widely regarded as even better than its astounding predecessor, and while it is both a brilliant film and a satisfying continuation of the tale, in my view Coppola’s first Sicilian sizzler remains a horse’s head in front.