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The Godfather II (1974)

Michael Corleone has succeeded in making his “family” a top force in Lake Tahoe, Nevada and he seeks to expand his empire to pre-revolutionary Cuba. Meanwhile, the early life of his father, Vito Corleone, is chronicled as he rises to power in the 1920s.
The first Godfather was ambitious. The second film in this legendary series is even more so. With Part II, director Coppola decides that a sequel to his Oscar Award-winning movie just isn’t enough. No. Instead he decides to make a sequel AND a prequel and turn them into the same movie. The film follows Michael Corleone after he has risen to power and moved his operations to Lake Tahoe. From there he must maneuver his way through a web of Mafia politics that include an old co-hort of his father’s, Hyman Roth, and his own brother. On top of this he also survives an attempt on his life, deals with betrayal, escapes Cuba during the revolution and even
appears before Congress. This story would have been plenty to keep fans of the original film happy, but Coppola adds another element. He juxtaposes the story of Michael’s father, Vito Corleone and HIS rise to power. We see Vito as a young boy, then a man living in a poor Italian neighborhood in New York. A chance encounter leads him into a life of petty crime and then, ultimately, ascendance as Mafia kingpin. The movie jumps back and forth between both stories and the audience is never bored… despite the fact that the film has a run time of over 3 hours. Coppola intertwines both stories expertly and the result is compelling.

Much like the first film, the acting is off the charts. Pacino returns as Michael Corleone, instead of rising to the top of crime world, he now sits upon the throne. Pacino plays him cool, collected and calm. The performance is so effective that the moment he finally loses his temper, it’s shocking and terrifying. But more effective than rage, Pacino really delivers a very understated grief-driven performance. His blood family falls apart while he tries to keep his criminal family together.

Speaking of his blood family, John Cazale’s role is Fredo is given a huge increase in screen time. Fredo is the idiot brother that can’t seem to do anything right, and as such was passed over for leadership of the Corleone family. This leads him to make some questionable decisions that lead to him betraying his brother. Obviously, this has disastrous consequences. But Cazale plays him so earnestly and with so much pathos that the audience forgives him… even if Michael does not.
The film is filled with other great performances from Diane Keaton and Robert Duvall, reprising their roles as Kay Corleone and Tom Hagen, respectively, as well as Michael V. Gazzo, a new character known as Franke Five Angels. But the performance that steals the show is Robert De Niro as the young Vito Corleone. This is one of De Niro’s first major film roles, and what intimidating shoes to fill… a character previously portrayed by Marlon Brando? But De Niro completely inhabits that character WITHOUT doing a Marlon Brando impression. That kind of talent is amazing to behold. Even more impressive is that DeNiro only had a few lines in English and did most of the movie speaking Italian.

Godfather Part II is one of those rare sequels that manages to take what worked in the original and then exceed your expectations. It adds to the legend and the mythos instead of watering it down. It has to be paired with Part I to get the complete story (let’s ignore Part III), you can’t watch or own one without the other.

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