In 1958, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) has taken over the family business from his late father, Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro), but how did the old man establish what amounts to an arm of the Italian-American Mafia? To understand, we must go back to 1901 when Vito was ten years old and his own father had been murdered by the local Mafia chieftain; when his elder brother was also gunned down, his mother took the young boy to see the boss and plead for his life, but well aware once Vito was grown he would seek vengeance, the chieftain wanted them both dead. He got half his wish: the mother was executed, but the boy got away, and was smuggled out of Sicily to America...
If the first Godfather movie took a cynical look at the world of business in the United States, its sequel made it look positively sunny. Co-writer and director Francis Ford Coppola did not want to shoot a follow-up to his biggest success, having suffered a rotten time on the first one and reluctant to return, but the studio made him, uh, an offer he couldn't refuse (no, they didn't threaten to kill him) so he came back on board as long as he was allowed to do anything he wanted with the production. In some ways, The Godfather Part II was more of a Coppola film than the original had been, and that was both to its benefit and a drawback as source author Mario Puzo was sidelined.
Many will tell you the novel of The Godfather is inferior to the movies, in the same way that Peter Benchley's Jaws was another nineteen-seventies benchmark when it became a film, not so much on the page, but as a soap opera featuring the worst kind of people who were aiming for respectability they simply could not earn, it was a pageturner of a book and a compelling watch as a film. For the sequel, Coppola had a bigger budget to play with and fewer restraints, therefore it sprawled over nearly three-and-a-half-hours of screen time which made it look more like a television miniseries than a motion picture experience, largely Gordon Willis' impeccable photography offering the cinematic feel.
That was significant, for the idea of quality television drama come the twenty-first century owed so much to The Godfather Part II with the likes of The Sopranos and Mad Men having a great debt to making what could have been a rather basic TV show into something coming across as more epic in scale. By focusing on two different time periods, this served as both a prequel and a sequel simultaneously, as De Niro, snagging an Oscar, played the Marlon Brando role as a younger man, one of the first and strongest indications of his immersive techniques, and Pacino played Michael as a man who wanted to sustain his family's power only to find they are a mediocre bunch who will bring their empire down should they have their own selfish ways.
In a weird set of stylings, the theme of those latter scenes was of embarrassment, of saving face when those supposedly closest to you let you down and even show you up. Michael is almost the only one taking the business seriously as an establishment that has a chance to go legitimate, everyone else is taking it for granted without contributing properly or actively placing it in peril, and that means not giving him his much-desired due as the new leader. If the first part had him drawn into the maelstrom of organised crime after vowing he would never have anything to do with it, the second saw him throwing himself into the role with unseemly gusto, gradually growing harder-hearted and ruthless until by the final scene he has been utterly corrupted: by his family, his duty and his country, all of which allows this.
Pacino as the lynchpin of what increasingly appeared like a Hell on Earth should you look below the wealthy surface portrayed one of the iciest and flintiest characters in all of seventies cinema, though if you had seen the more nuanced Michael from before, this was a little harder to take, it was as if Coppola was taking out his frustrations from Part I on him. Fortunately, Pacino was assisted by some fine support, in particular John Cazale as his weak, pathetic brother Fredo, possibly the best performance from an actor whose filmography was tragically cut short. Diane Keaton as wife Kay, too, had a couple of great showcase scenes that could surprise those who know her from comedy, and Robert Duvall as stepbrother Tom was all controlled, smooth deviousness, while Talia Shire as sister Connie was sidelined plotwise, but had her key scene too. Yet it was an awful lot of good stuff that could have done with more succinct plotting, despite its reputation for many as the greatest sequel ever. Fittingly, both Parts I and II were re-edited into a TV miniseries later in the decade. Music by Nino Rota.