Series note: It is almost unthinkable to watch this film without having seen The Godfather (1972) first. This is a direct continuation of that story.
The good news is that The Godfather Part II has many amazing qualities, including fantastic performances from a superb cast, sublime, unprecedented visuals that no one else has been able to capture since, and very engaging stories. The bad news is that this should have easily been a 10, but overall, it is so sprawling and unfocused that I can't possibly give it more than a 9, which it only earns because the assets transcend what's basically a mess overall. Because it should have been a 10, and most other reviews will tell you about the positive points at length, I may pick on more things in my review than you would think I would for a 9, but rest assured that even with the flaws, The Godfather Part II is still essential viewing.
Director/co-writer Francis Ford Coppola cleverly begins the film with parallels to The Godfather. We see Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) "in the role" of his father, Vito (Marlon Brando), from the first film, accepting prostrating guests while a party is going on outside. Like the first film, the party consumes a lot of time while we get to know some of the principal characters. Perhaps during this segment, perhaps a bit after, we realize that maybe the beginning wasn't so clever after all, because the structure of The Godfather Part II parallels The Godfather from a broad perspective, as if Coppola and co-writer Mario Puzo used the first film as something of a template to create this one.
After the party is over, there is an attempted hit on Michael, and we quickly learn that not everything is rosy in the Corleone's mafia world. Michael believes that someone on the "inside" was involved with the hit. This launches a complicated sequence of events that has Michael, who is now living in Nevada, traveling to Miami, Cuba, New York, and so on. He accuses different people of involvement in the attempted hit depending on whom he is talking to. This may have all been part of a grand scheme to set up the responsible parties, but one of the flaws of the film is that Coppola doesn't convey Michael's underlying thoughts about this very well, not even later, and not through his actions. Rather than feeling like a clever set-up, it starts to feel like slightly muddled writing.
During the middle section of the film, which goes on for hours, we also have a hint of a problem that plagued The Godfather--a bloated cast. There are bit too many characters who aren't well enough presented or explained. You may need to keep a scorecard.
Coppola and Puzo also treat us to many extended "flashback" segments, and I mean way back, to Vito as a boy and young man, played by Robert De Niro. For my money, these were the best scenes of the film, although maybe that's a bit of my bias creeping in, as I'm a huge De Niro fan.
But let's talk about the main plague of the film--sprawl. This is maybe first evident in the flashbacks. As good as they are, they go on far too long, and happen far too frequently, to sustain the momentum of either the Michael story or the Vito-as-a-youngster story. It begins to feel like we're toggling back and forth between two films, which is the track that should have been taken. The prequel, at least, would have been a solid 10.
There's also a lot of sprawl in the Michael Corleone segments. Coppola appears to have been suffering from what I'd now call "J.K. Rowling Syndrome". That happens when an artist becomes successful enough that they can fire or ignore their editor(s). Instead of taking good advice about where to trim fat, the artist decides to just leave much of it in, and they now have the clout to override any dissenting and more sensible opinions. The Michael Corleone story has a lot of fat, including much of the Cuba material (for example, sitting around the table with the President, laboriously passing around a solid gold telephone), the Senate hearings (which go on far too long to make and provide the dramatic points), and so on.
The film begins to feel more like a couple seasons of a television show that Coppola tried to cram into a 3 and a half hour film, or worse, a collection of deleted scenes. The scenes, except for the fat that needed to be trimmed, are excellent in isolation. But by the time the climax rolls around, the whole has more of an arbitrary feeling--this is especially clear in the dénouement, which seems to just end.
I've barely left myself room to talk about the good points. The first one, which most people mention, is the acting. There isn't a bad performance in the film, but Pacino, De Niro, and some relatively minor characters, like those played by Diane Keaton, Talia Shire and John Cazale, really stand out.
The second outstanding point, similar to the first film, is the beautiful visuals. Although all of the cinematography and production design is great, what really impressed me were some of the darkly lit scenes. Characters and features of sets emerge from pitch-blackness, and everything is rich, deep shades of burgundy, brown, and orange. Amazingly, nothing gets lost in these scenes. It must be incredibly difficult to achieve without making the shots too dark, because I can't remember another film since that has been able to capture the same look. The flashback scenes are also in similar, but lighter, colors, creating an appropriate sepia-tone feel.
Although the broad perspective problems are unfortunate, a closer focus on most segments of the film provides exemplary artistry. Given that, and the film's importance culturally, The Godfather Part II is a must-see.