The Godfather Part II Review
The Godfather, as I mentioned in my previous review, is widely considered to be one of the greatest films of all time, if not the greatest. However, there is a strong school of thought that the sequel is in fact its equal, or even superior; the same critics, however, tend to see the third part of the trilogy as a complete artistic failure, which it certainly isn't. Sequels that surpass the originals tend to be comparatively rare; while many people can say, justifiably, that The Empire Strikes Back is a better, and infinitely more intelligent film than Star Wars, it lacks the iconic significance that the first film had. The other film quoted as surpassing its predecessor is Cameron's Aliens; while it's certainly an exceptionally strong piece of action filmmaking, it has so remarkably little in common with Alien other than the central character and the aliens themselves that comparisons become almost impossible. Therefore, to say that the Godfather part 2 is a better film than the brilliant original is a somewhat arbitrary statement; personally, I've always regarded them as the same film, albeit extended to a length far beyond that of any other mainstream work of cinema (roughly 6 and a bit hours). And what a film it is.
The film is divided into two interrelated sections. The first, and best, is the story of the young Vito Corleone (the superb de Niro, who speaks almost entirely in Italian, and won his first Oscar for doing so), following his flight from Sicily to New York, and subsequent establishment as a godfather in the growing city. The second, and more directly 'sequel-related' concerns Michael Corleone (Pacino), and follows his attempts to expand the family, along with his attempts to discover who was responsible for an assassination attempt on his life. Eventually, by the stunning conclusion of the film, all is revealed.
Although this is very much a continuation of the first film's narrative, themes and artistic accomplishments (Gordon Willis' superb cinematography is, if anything, even better than that of the previous film's, with the scenes in early 20th-century New York especially beautifully staged), there is also a rather different atmosphere to the film. This is partly because of the Vito scenes, which have an epic power and grandeur more or less unseen since silent cinema (and only really equalled in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in American), but also because the scenes with Michael have a different tone. In the first film, the business of being a member of the family was shown as somehow almost heroic; despite the fact that these people were criminals, we liked them, and saw them as the 'good guys'. Perhaps fearing that he had weighted the balance too heavily on the side of the family, Coppola takes pains to show the deeply bitter side of what Michael's chosen profession has led him to, emphasising his retreat from morality into a sort of existential world in which anybody, regardless of who they are, may try and kill him, and so must be killed in return. Pacino's truly stunning performance was, again, not an Oscar-winning one; however, the depth and pathos that he brings to it exceeds even his appearance in the first film.
It's not a flawless film in the sense that its predecessor was. The scenes with the young Vito are so strong that, especially in the complex first half, the scenes with Michael threaten to become less compelling, despite a great performance from Method-acting founder Lee Strasberg as the possibly duplicitous Hyman Roth; without James Caan as Sonny, there is an occasional lack of human feeling in the scenes that leads to a sensation of isolation from the characters. Of course, by the end, we are utterly detached from Michael, just as he is detached from all those he has ever loved, and the coldness of the early scenes really pays off; the finale, which purposely calls to mind the original's baptism/murder cross-cutting, is a truly stunning piece of cinema, as we finally lose any sympathy with Michael. In fact, a sequel seems fairly redundant by the end of the film, despite the fact that Coppola made it anyway; the Corleone family saga is beautifully told in these two films, which together stand as one of the highpoints of American cinema, and the most entertaining 6 hours of film you will probably ever watch.
As with the first film, the picture is slightly disappointing, despite being restored; there is an irritatingly high amount of grain in some scenes, with one shot, of a hotel, so badly grainy that I momentarily wondered if I was watching a shot from a VHS tape by accident. However, the picture is mostly up to the same standards as the first, with pleasingly strong colours, little obvious print damage despite the original print being in noticeably bad condition, and generally good contrast. (It helps that the film isn't quite as dark as the first one!) Certainly not as stunning a transfer as some you may have seen, but far from bad all the same.
The 5.1 remix provided here is slightly more effective than the more or less redundant one that the first film had; some use is made of the surround effects, especially in the scenes with Vito, and it sounds slightly more contemporary than the first film's soundtrack. The absence of the original mono track is missed, however.
Coppola contributes another excellent commentary here, albeit not quite as good as the first one. He speaks interestingly about the themes of the film, character motivation and about some of the scenes that had to be deleted (and which, thankfully, appear on the bonus disc); however, due to the rather easier production of the film, he doesn't have as many scurrilous anecdotes about Paramount (or, sadly, Brando) this time round, which means that this is of less immediate appeal to the casual listener. For Godfather fans, though, this is another great commentary track from the master himself.
Another stunning film in the greatest gangster saga, or indeed family saga, ever made is released on a disc that is more or less the same as that of its predecessor, albeit with slightly less good picture quality, a slightly improved sound remix and a commentary that, depending on personal taste, some may find less interesting than that of the first film's. However, this is one of the highpoints of American cinema, and is unreservedly recommended on that basis.