Max’s review published on Letterboxd:
What an interesting exercise to watch a series of films in quick succession: without the years of hype that the production results in at the time, some sense of clear-eyed observation settles in. Joining a fellow Letterboxder for their first foray into the Godfather trilogy, I was interested to look back at these first two instalments which lingered only hazily in my memory. It came with quite a weight of expectation; this being the go-to example of a sequel that is superior to the original, even though I didn't remember agreeing with that on my first watch. Coming to it now, I was hopeful that a greater understanding of film and also watching along with someone who had no idea of the plot would allow me to see something I had missed before. However, as good a film as this is, it only confirmed my suspicions.
Luckily, my pal agreed (here, much more concise than me). The film is technically impeccable, of course. Al Pacino reaches a level beyond the first iteration of Michael Corleone, the quietly brooding menace being ever more powerful for the explosions that came to define the Pacino pastiches of late. Surrounded by a cadre of stellar actors, the talkiness that made these strange gangster films so fresh is absolutely delivered. And then of course there is Robert De Niro, never more lithe and wiry, doing his very best to stand up to the iconic presence of Brando in the first. The production design does a great job of differentiating the strands of the story, and Gordon Willis' cinematography needs no explanation, it just looks fabulous.
As a viewing experience, it is true that the second half (post-intermission) is fabulous and, crucially, moving. For me, The Godfather is special because it is so gently, inexorably moving - Don talking to his son as almost an acceptance, a passing over of the reigns, in just one of the moments that Coppola mines for feeling as if the moment of realisation before Tommy's death in Goodfellas is being played on 0.25x speed. Part II has many moments in the second half which are equally tragic, occasionally even tragic, and very occasionally for Michael who is barely allowed more than a morsel of humanity. His conversations with Kay and Fredo still work so effectively and that ending... the single most effective flashback in a film which tries to pride itself on being structurally daring. I must admit, though, that the first half left something to be desired. I felt that it was cold in a way that the first film never was, coming alive only in the flashbacks because they relied so heavily on that heart-rending score. However, without all of the set-up here, I realised by the end that the emotional weight of the latter portion just wouldn't have been achieved.
But this is not the only imbalance in the film, which for me struggles to ever outgrow its troubled structure - I just could never get on board with the dual-stranded story. Don Vito's story is interesting as a rise to power; of an immigrant whose life has been ravaged by criminality, but is forced into gangsterism to get a foothold in New York City. This could have been an interesting set-up but these elements are never explored for its full potential - rather focussing on undramatic moments that work as pivots to help the editing. I equally felt rather lost in the machinations in and around Cuba, where Michael's political and national concerns tie in with the personal effects of running a family business; while it could be argued that such an issue is on me, I felt that running straight through with no flashbacks would have made it easier. This was the crux - save for a few incidental matches like the miscarriage with Fredo's birth, the two storylines don't illuminate, complicate or ask questions of each other. Taking The Irishman as a unflattering point of comparison, which frankly was a film that came to mind often, that film uses a similarly complicated approach to time so that the weight of regret bearing down on Sheeran can be felt more fully by the end; here, the only moment that comes close is the stroke of genius in the conclusion.
All in all, I do not wish to do this film down - it's a classic of its kind, with great moments. But it is not without its flaws, which only become more obvious when seen in direct contrast to the absolute clarity of the first film. Yes, I was moved by Vito finding his feet in New York, but that was thanks to the music and performances. Yes, Michael's self-destruction is affecting in itself, but it isn't improved by the parallel journey into crime by a character whose endpoint we are aware of. The original is all about gangsterism's interiority, corrupting Michael as Vito's honourable ways slowly become outdated - but now, the same generational conflict is fudged of a barrier of time, and can never be fully resolved. A very good film, but the cinematic embodiment of the maxim: less is more.