The inimitable Godfather story continues in The Godfather Part II.
Unlike many critics, I don't feel the sequel has the weight of the original -- many feel it to be better than the first film -- but it certainly is a necessary and extremely good follow-up, adding a wealth of information about "the family" that only serves to enhance the experience of the original movie. The problem, of course, is how could you measure up to The Godfather? The truly memorable scenes from the series -- the spilling cart of oranges, the horse's head, Michael's vengeance in the Italian restaurant, "an offer he couldn't refuse" -- are all found in the original, not here (or at best, they are simply repeated in the sequel). Godfather 2's most memorable moments -- the Senator's private meeting with Michael ("My offer is this: Nothing."), the denouement of Fredo -- pale in comparison. Well, not exactly pale, but you can't say that Godfather 2 is as good as Numero Uno.
The story this time out takes two strikingly different parts and glues them together. Part one traces the childhood of the "dumb-witted" toddler Vito Corleone (later Marlon Brando) as a kid in Italy. His father is assassinated in 1901 by the local mafia boss, sending him packing for Ellis Island in America. Flash forward to 1958, when Michael, now Don in Lake Tahoe, Nevada, is handing out favors after his son's communion. Michael is now getting the gambling ring set up on the west coast in an attempt to go legit, like his father wanted. This also brings him to try to make a deal with Hyman Roth (played by 73-year-old acting teacher Lee Strasberg in his first movie) to take over his Cuban operations when he dies -- and much of the film takes place on the island. Flash back to 1917, when young Vito (now played by Robert De Niro) is earning his comeuppance in New York. Here we learn of his rise to power as an underworld mobster, and of Vito's cold-bloodedness that takes him into the life we've come to know so well.
Technically, Godfather 2 is just as aptly produced as the original, though by the time we get to the revolution in Cuba, things have gotten a bit garish, losing the austerity and subtle, dim lighting of the original film. It's just too hard to watch duplicity under the harsh rays of the Caribbean sun. The scenes of Michael's Grand Jury investigation also drone on too long, and feel awfully C-SPANish.
That aside, give Godfather 2 credit especially for its prequel moments. De Niro is spectacular -- almost without any lines -- as the young Vito. As director, Coppola proves once again that he is the master and that Martin Scorsese is the imitator.
If you're new to the Godfather series, I recommend checking out The Godfather Saga -- Coppola's chronological re-edit of the first two films (albeit de-violenced and profanitied for TV) that includes a few extra minutes of footage. It gives you the whole picture in a more comprehensible fashion... if you have about 6 hours to kill.
Continued in The Godfather Part III.
Additional coverage of the Epic DVD set found in the review of The Godfather.