Feel free to read this and the next review in reverse order; they were written that way and naturally I watched the films that way, because one is a sequel of the other. There’s an odd logic to sequels that they must be inherently lesser than the original film, since for the most part you need the original to exist in order for the sequel to make sense. In rare circumstances the sequel will surpass the original, but usually by shedding the elements that don’t work to focus on the ones that do; rendering the original unneeded, in other words. You don’t get sequels that take the original and just continue the story, as if there was always meant to be a second act; same tone, same feel, essentially the next chapter in the same film. So in a way The Godfather: Part II is even more impressive than the original for being able to re-bottle the lightning and expand on the saga of the Corleone family without needing to succumb to the fate of every other sequel ever made. Why mess with perfection, after all?
The film serves as both sequel and prequel, with one narrative following Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) as the new Don doing whatever is necessary to maintain his position at the top, and the other showing a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) rising from poor immigrant landing on Ellis Island to the head of one of the Five Families of New York. Just as subtle and immaculate as the first, it’s fitting the pair should appear side by side in IMDb’s rankings, as one could easily watch one after the other and have them flow together seamlessly. Where the first film is a simple drama painted on a grand canvas using the backdrop of the Mafia, the sequel is both more a tragedy and more directly connected to the life of organised crime, framing the endless cycle of retribution among mobsters as the last days of the Roman empire, a once-mighty institution now crumbling. “I don’t feel I have to wipe everybody out,” Michael says, “just my enemies,” but in the end it comes to the same thing for the Don. As he ends the film alone, his family broken beyond repair, we can’t help but think back on his father Vito’s death of a heart attack while playing with his grandson, and imagine the endless ways everything could have turned out better.