With the critical and financial success of "The Godfather" in 1972, a sequel was inevitable, and two years later, "The Godfather: Part II" bowed into theaters. Co-scripted by director Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo, and featuring most of the original cast along with a few new faces, "The Godfather: Part II" greatly expanded on the story begun in Puzo's novel "The Godfather". As a result, "The Godfather: Part II" ended up becoming one of those rare movie sequels that are on par, or even better, than the original film. Indeed, "The Godfather: Part II" went on to win six out of the eleven Academy Awards it was nominated for that year, including Best Director for Coppola, the award that had eluded him two years earlier. The film also became the only movie sequel to ever win a Best Picture award. Running at almost three-and-a-half hours, "The Godfather: Part II" contains enough material for a few movies, or a TV miniseries. Serving as both a sequel and prequel to "The Godfather", it tells two distinct stories in parallel, contrasting the rise of Vito Corleone (played by Robert De Niro, seen recently in "Analyze This") with the continuing decline of his son Michael (Al Pacino, reprising his role).
The first story picks up the action approximately a decade after the closing scene of the first film. The Corleone family has successfully reestablished itself in Nevada, where it has numerous casino interests, and Michael is looking towards expanding into pre-Castro Cuba through a partnership with the powerful Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg, who came out of retirement specifically for this film). In an opening that mirrors the first film, Michael holds court during a family celebration, the first communion of his son Anthony. However, it quickly becomes apparent that something is rotten in the house of Corleone. Michael's five-year plan to making the Corleone family a legitimate enterprise still remains unfulfilled. His sister Connie (Talia Shire) is squandering the family's money with her playboy lifestyle, while his older brother Fredo (John Cazale) continues to make a fool himself, bending to the will of his flirtatious wife Deanna (Mariana Hill) or Roth's henchman Johnny Ola (Dominic Chianese, better known as Uncle Junior in "The Sopranos"). In addition, the Corleone's uncouth representative from New York, Frankie Pentangeli (Michael V. Gazzo, seen recently in "Nothing to Lose") is looking for permission to assassinate his rivals, the Rosato brothers, which Michael refuses, as it may jeopardize the negotiations with Roth. When a failed assassination attempt strikes the Corleone home later that evening, Michael begins a merciless campaign to rout his enemies, both inside and outside the family. Unfortunately, in doing so, he ends up destroying his fragile bonds with the very people he is trying to protect: his wife Kay (Diane Keaton), Fredo, and his confidant Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall).
The second story details the humble beginnings and meteoric rise of young Vito Corleone at the turn of the century. Having fled from Sicily after his family was executed by a local Don (Giuseppe Sillato), Vito settles in New York, marries Carmella (Francesca De Sapio), and starts a family. He is also befriended by a young Clemenza (Bruno Kirby, heard recently in "Stuart Little") and starts his own crime dynasty after a confrontation with Don Fanucci (Gastone Moschin).
As "The Godfather: Part II" unspools, Coppola deftly contrasts the lives of father and son, demonstrating how Michael has all but squandered his father's legacy, both in terms of the family enterprise and family values. And like the first film, Michael's failure is hammered home during the final act in a number of key (not to mention unforgettable) scenes, namely his falling out with Fredo and a bitter admission by Kay. And in keeping with the dark tone of the story, cinematographer Gordon Willis (who lensed all three films) bathes many of the scenes in sepia, golden amber, and darkish tones, and deliberately underexposes Michael's appearances in the latter half of the film.
Reflecting his character's maturation, Pacino's performance is certainly more forceful and fiery in this second go-around, yet he still manages to evoke sympathy as the film's tragic hero. Unfortunately, as with the first film, Pacino was nominated for his performance (Best Actor this time), but did no win. De Niro, on the other hand, received a Best Supporting Actor nod for his portrayal of Vito Corleone, making De Niro and Marlon Brando the only two actors to win acting Oscars for playing the same character. In reprising her role as Kay, Keaton is given considerably more to do this time, and her venomous verbal assault on Michael near the end of the film is one of the film's standout moments. Duvall is solid once again as Tom Hagen, as are Gazzo and Strasberg in their Best Supporting Actor-nominated turns. Finally, James Caan makes a welcome (though uncredited) appearance as Santino during a brief flashback sequence. Brando was also slated to make a similar brief appearance, though he refused to show up because of how the studio had treated him during the first film.
"The Godfather: Part II" is an excellent companion piece to the original "Godfather", expanding the premise of the first film, while remaining faithful to its powerful themes. Unfortunately, it would be another sixteen years before audiences could learn the fate of a broken and lonely Michael Corleone in "The Godfather: Part III", the final chapter of a truly landmark movie trilogy.