“If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.”
I think The Godfather II is hailed as the greatest sequel of all time because it doesn’t think like a sequel. I would even say it couldn’t, because the formula for the bad sequel hadn’t really been devised yet. It follows one of the highest praised movies of all time, and instead of repeating plot beats, it only repeats style. Instead of retracing themes, it expands on them and blossoms them to fruition. I also think the story is so much more engaging, and it has so many powerful scenes, that I would say it’s my favorite Godfather movie.
The film cuts between the new Godfather Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) and the early life of his father Vito (now portrayed by Robert De Niro) who we see rise to power from troubled beginnings. Michael faces threats from new enemies such as the aging Miami crime boss Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg) and also from within his own family.
I think an “epic” as these movies are often labeled shouldn’t just be long; it should be layered. Not only does Michael face a host of opponents, but he must maintain his allies and use his wit to survive from scene to scene. There’s also his wife bringing a moral dimension to the movie. She’s one of the best parts of the series because she holds no literal power, but she is able to hit Michael harder than anyone else, and it makes for one of the finest scenes in the movie. Then the beautifully constructed (and acted) Vito storyline legitimizes the Corleone family, and it has insightful parallels to the main plot. There’s nothing tiresome about the second Godfather. I think even if you aren’t a fan, it’s an undeniably rich story.
The style is also an important carry-in from the first movie. I think the creeping honesty of the first movie was pivotal to its success, and the second film follows the same pattern. Shots aren’t too surprising or experimental, but they are engaging all the same. There’s this slow suspense to the Godfather films where dialogue is action. Everyone is slick, knowing exactly what to say to whom and when. It’s when this balance is disrupted or someone chooses to act against it that the movie becomes so exciting. Just as a sequel should be, the world and its rules are the same, but everything else seems fresh.
Vito Corleone is an incredible titan of cinema in the first film, but I feel more connected with the second Godfather because Michael isn’t quite the same way. We’ve seen him rise from cowardice to assume cutthroat leadership, but we also see what he’s lost to get there and that maybe those things still matter to him. The Vito storyline also rounds out who was a fascinating but sometimes stagnant character from the first movie as well. You could say that Godfather II has more soul in this way. It takes changed men and contrasts them with who they once were. The first movie definitely touches on this, but this theme really shines in Godfather II, and it’s a driving factor behind why I loved this movie.
With incredible style and clever, substantial action, these two movies are absolute treasures of cinema. They’re among the greatest of their kind, and while I think I still prefer the fast, playful gangster spirit of the 90s, these movies are still so satisfying when you can find time to sink your teeth into them.
Films Left to Watch: 834