Though it only took two years for Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo to come up with the first sequel to "The Godfather", bringing "The Godfather: Part III" to the screen was a much more protracted process. During the sixteen years after the release of "The Godfather: Part II", Paramount Studios made numerous attempts to jump-start the third film. Puzo wrote two scripts, one in 1978 that revolved around Michael Corleone's son Anthony being recruited by the CIA to take down a Latin American dictator, and another in 1986 that contrasted the early years of Sonny Corleone with the life of his illegitimate son Vincent Mancini. Paramount also tried to go around Coppola and Puzo in getting the third film off the ground, entertaining directors such as Martin Scorsese ("Bringing Out the Dead"), Michael Mann ("Ali"), Sidney Lumet ("Dog Day Afternoon"), and even Sylvester Stallone (hot off his success with "Rocky"). At least twelve scripts were written, most of which revolved around Anthony Corleone and his battles against South American drug cartels, Fidel Castro, or the CIA.
However, the catalyst for shooting the film ended up being financial troubles at Coppola's production company, Zoetrope Studios, after taking it took a bath on 1988's "Tucker: The Man and His Dream". Thus, the prayers of the trilogy's fans were finally answered in 1990, when "The Godfather: Part III" was released. Unfortunately, like the highly anticipated debut of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" in 1999, "The Godfather: Part III" was a disappointing effort that did not live up to the hype.
The film opens in 1979, and it's been over three decades have passed since a young Michael Corleone told his girlfriend Kay Adams that he would never have anything to do with his father's business. It has also been two decades since we last saw Michael in "The Godfather: Part II", having split with Kay and ordered the execution of his older brother Fredo. Now in his sixties, Michael (Al Pacino, reprising the role again) seems to have a shot at redemption. Having divested all of its criminal activities, the Corleone family business is now completely legitimate, and Michael has been awarded the Order of St. Sebastian for his generosity to the Catholic Church. And even though ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton) has long since moved on with her life, Michael hopes that this may make it easier for them to reconcile.
Despite this new direction for the family, Michael's son Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio) wants nothing to with his father's business. Anthony even rejects his father's wishes for him to go to law school, choosing instead to pursue a career in opera, a move that is wholeheartedly supported by Kay. On the other hand, his sister Mary (Sofia Coppola, the director's daughter) is following in Michael's legitimate footsteps by running the charitable arm of the Corleone enterprise, the Vito Corleone Foundation. Another would-be heir to the Corleone throne is Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia, seen recently in "Ocean's Eleven"), the illegitimate son of Santino Corleone. Despite the young man's wreckless ambition, affinity for violence, and romantic intentions towards Mary, Michael decides to take Vincent under his wing and groom him to be the next Don Corleone.
Trouble brews when Michael enters a takeover bid of the international conglomerate Immobiliare with the help of the Vatican Bank. Michael's former associates want to 'wet their beaks' with this newfound business opportunity, which they can use for laundering money. However, Michael is adamant about not allowing his former mob colleagues to participate in his new venture. This, of course, ruffles a few feathers, particularly those of Don Altobello (Eli Wallach of "Keeping the Faith") and his errand boy Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna of TV's "First Monday"). To make matters worse, it seems that elements within the Vatican Bank and Immobiliare have interests contrary to Michael, and are willing to use any and all means to pursue them. Thus, history repeats itself once again as Michael finds himself and his family threatened, spurring him to do everything in his power to eliminate his enemies. And like before, Michael, already burdened with the weight of his past sins, pays the ultimate price for vengeance.
"The Godfather: Part III" was rushed into production without a completed script, and it shows in the unfocused and muddled execution. Instead of the deliberate and purposeful plotting of the first two films, "The Godfather: Part III" is a jumble of half-completed ideas and strained dialogue that tries very hard to emulate the glory of its predecessors. The Immobiliare intrigue, which is actually based on a real banking scandal that rocked the Vatican, and the resultant conflict between the Michael and Don Lucchese (Enzo Robutti), are part of a tangled mess that is difficult to follow. Bridget Fonda ("Kiss of the Dragon") shows up at the beginning of the film as a potential love interest for Vincent, only to completely drop out of the film within the first act. Because Robert Duvall wanted $5 million to reprise his role, his character was written out of the story and George Hamilton was brought in to play a Tom Hagen-like character-- unfortunately, Hamilton ends up being little more than a talking head, spouting unremarkable lines to fill dead air.
A number of the plot points also have a 'been there, done that' feel to them, as this film essentially rehashes the first one. Instead of Vito Corleone trying to keep hotheaded Sonny in line, it's Michael trying to keep Vincent from doing something stupid. And instead of Michael not wanting to be any part of his father's business, it's his son Anthony not wanting to be involved. This retread of "The Godfather" might have been interesting if the characters were on the level of the previous films. Unfortunately, other than Michael trying to find redemption, the characters are flat and uninteresting. A prime example is Vincent, the would-be Don, who is really not that interesting given his one-dimensional nature, and his romance with Mary (his cousin no less), another underwritten character, seems forced.
Mind you, "The Godfather: Part III" does have a few memorable moments which make it worthwhile. The expected assassination in the first act becomes a full-blown action set piece involving a helicopter gunning down a meeting of Dons. Another highlight would be the film's suspenseful and tragic climax, where an assassin has infiltrated the Sicilian concert hall where Michael and the Corleone clan are attending Anthony's operatic debut. Finally, the film's brief and abrupt coda is a sad, final glimpse of the once-powerful man who has been completely bankrupted by his malicious ways, and whose only happiness is in the memories of more innocent times.
Performance-wise, Pacino continues to be a delight to watch, and his hardened, world-weary portrayal of Michael is dead on. Talia Shire moves from the periphery to center stage this time around, as her character Connie, the troubled older sister of Michael, becomes the power behind the throne, a scheming manipulator behind the scenes. Garcia certainly exudes charisma in the role of Vincent, but it all ends up being wasted on such a bland and cliché-ridden character. Though her character is an integral part of Michael's quest for redemption, Keaton's presence seems more of a contractual obligation than anything else, given the uninteresting lines that she utters. However, the biggest turn-off would have to be in the casting of Mary. Coppola's first choice for the role was Julia Roberts ("America's Sweethearts"), but when she was unavailable, he settled on Winona Ryder ("Girl, Interrupted"). And when Ryder withdrew from the production due to exhaustion, Coppola's daughter got the part. Unfortunately, Sofia exacerbates an already underwritten part with acting that is excruciatingly painful to watch. Her awkward screen presence, limited dramatic range, and stilted line delivery are constant distractions throughout the film, and end up undermining the weight of the story's climax.
Breaking with the precedent set by the first two films, "The Godfather: Part III" failed to win any Academy Awards in the seven categories it was nominated. In addition, the film was barely able to make back its $45 million budget as a result of audience ennui and critical drubbing. That said, "The Godfather: Part III" is not a bad film-- at best, it is an average effort deserving of a better script. Despite its faults, when viewed in the context of the entire "Godfather" trilogy, this third and final film brings closure to the tragic downfall of Michael Corleone, a man who once naively did what he thought was best for his family, only to unleash more misery than he could have ever imagined. And for fans of the first two films, it's an offer that can't be refused.