Fred Kolb’s review published on Letterboxd:
To get the most pressing question out of the way first, between “The Godfather” and its sequel, the original is unequivocally the better film. At least in my books. I get why some people favor Part II though. It’s broader and far more ambitious, dividing its running time not exactly equally but significantly between two timelines set half a century apart and diving much deeper into the exact nature of the criminal enterprises of the Corleone clan. Which is perhaps why I wasn’t as into it. As I emphasized in my review for the first one, I admire its thematic simplicity and intimacy. It’s about family first and business second. And even though “The Godfather” is universally recognized as a trendsetter in its genre, it’s also a unique artifact because Michael isn’t eager to become part of this life. The riches of the underworld have no appeal to him. He was proud to serve his country and while he is fine with joining his family on his sister’s wedding day, he seems uneasy about being back in the lion’s den. But by the end, he discovered he can never hope to outrun his inheritance and that is a tragic ending worthy of a classic.
To offer a point of comparison, I’m on the record that I don’t particularly care for Sergio Leone’s swansong “Once Upon a Time in America”, which has some visual and thematic parallels to the prequel scenes here, because it fails to set up sympathetic characters. What “The Godfather” and its sequel do so well is to frame its villainous protagonists as decent people in an awful business. At least initially. The whole point of the road to hell is that it doesn’t start out in that horrible place. Don Vito is a man of violence, who presides over an organization no honorable man would ever come within miles of, but he has principles, values family and approaches his work with a sound mindset that makes him at the very least a compelling, consistent character to follow. Michael, a war hero who tried his hardest to get away from his criminal clan entirely, was dragged back into the mud when there was nobody else to get the job done and his descent into madness and paranoia is the crux of this sequel. He promised his wife that he wanted to go legitimate. Given that he secured his position by murdering various figures in organized crime when he took over, it’s doubtful he was ever entirely serious about that, but when assassins open fire into his bedroom and nearly kill him and Kay, his anger is unrelenting.
There is much going on in Michael’s life these days, to an extent to the detriment of the film’s cohesiveness. He wants to expand the organization’s presence in Las Vegas, following the demise of Moe Greene. At the same time, he partners with Miami mobster Hyram Roth, who physically resembled former Attorney General Jeff Sessions to the point where it was immediately obvious that he was a supervillain, to invest into Cuba, a plan that fails spectacularly when the rebels overthrow the regime on New Year’s Eve in 1958. There is also some trouble with one of his captains, Frank Pentangeli, who is concerned about the Rosato brothers infringing upon his business. Michael is busy trying to accumulate wealth and power and his personal relations suffer as a result. Consider his sit-down with Fredo in Cuba, a scene that was particularly striking in contrast to Pacino’s and Cazale’s partnership just a year later in “Dog Day Afternoon”. Michael is cold as ice, trying to get a read on his older brother, who may or may not have inadvertently betrayed him to his opponents. “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer” is a line just as brilliant as “I’m going to make him an offer he can’t refuse” and it serves as a tragic leitmotif for this film. When your worldview is this cynical, how can you know for sure that those in your circle of trust don’t have the exact same philosophy and are just waiting for a golden opportunity to cut your throat?
The biggest compliment anyone could ever pay Robert De Niro is that he is entirely credible as a younger version of the Brando character in “The Godfather”. He understands early on how much power someone can wield simply by being owed. His predecessor, Don Fanucci was a tyrant, who demanded payoffs from fellow Italians and enjoyed a life of opulence while others were struggling to make ends meet in the streets of New York after the Great War. Young Vito is certainly willing to take more drastic measures than his older self to establish his influence, but he only employs violence when he recognizes that he can get away with it. Fanucci is loathed and won’t be missed. That’s an opening for a man who just lost his job because this asshole wanted him replaced with his nephew. By the time he holds court in a small office and gets a landlord to lower the rent for one of his tenants simply by asking him to inquire about his reputation in the neighborhood, he has won. Don Corleone, the orphan from Sicily who arrived on Ellis Island in 1901, is now a dreamer of the American dream.
The difference between Vito and Michael, which is ultimately the point of contrasting their experiences for 3+ hours, is simple and that’s where “The Godfather Part II” returns to the fundamentals that made its predecessor such a profound experience. Vito was a father first and a gangster second. He loved his wife and children and no matter how much influence he amassed, he always came home. Michael on the other hand, in his ruthlessness and paranoia, antagonized Kay to the point where she decides to call it quits on their toxic marriage with one of the most vicious, crushing break-ups in cinematic history. The film, appropriately, ends with Don Corleone the Younger sitting alone, reminiscing about the day he told his family that he was enlisting in the army. He turned down the deferment his father secured for him and quit college. He wanted to be his own man, independent from the big plans everyone else had for him. But now, years later and with most of the people who sat at that table that night dead and buried, he has become nothing more than a pale, twisted imitation of the man who raised him and once observed: “A man who doesn't spend time with his family can never be a real man.”