Robert De Niro has looked roughly the same age since at least the mid '90s. So synonymous today is the character actor with his silver hair, furrowed brow and gruff voice of later years, it's easy to forget he was once a young man, sculpted and almost unreasonably charismatic. That's the De Niro of The Godfather: Part II, a young man playing another young man more often associated with his older self.
As Vito Corleone, fresh off the boat in New York City, De Niro takes a role played with fading grandeur by Marlon Brando and, somehow, makes it completely his own. De Niro's Vito is a young immigrant whose ambition, watchfulness and innate sense of cool mask a deep desire for vengeance, which will be exacted only when the moment is right. Just like Brando's, its one of the all-time great performances in cinema — and it's one of the reasons The Godfather: Part II is unparalleled as the greatest gangster movie of all time.
Rewind, I hear you say — what about Goodfellas, Scarface? What about Gangs of New York and The Departed, not to mention Pulp Fiction or De Niro's own Once Upon A Time in America? You're telling me with a straight face that Part II is a better movie than The Godfather. Do you really want to open that box?
Actually, I do. I like that box. Shake out the contents and you'll find yourself swimming in thousands of jigsaw pieces from all of the aforementioned classics — but the only jigsaw it's possible to complete is The Godfather: Part II. Quite simply, Francis Ford Coppola's epic, the first sequel ever to win Best Picture, has everything.
And it's not even a straight-up sequel. It's both continuation and origin story, a prequel layered so artfully inside a sequel it's impossible to pinpoint the moment at which what we learn about young Vito Corleone turns Part II from a mafia saga into a tragedy. Toward the end of the first film, Brando's Vito tells his youngest son Michael (Al Pacino) "I never wanted this for you," after recovering from an assassination attempt and witnessing Michael's rapid rise to the role of Don.
The dialogue in that scene wasn't part of Coppola's screenplay — it was added the night before shooting by script doctor Bob Towne, because the director felt the film was missing a moment which conveyed the love Vito felt for his son — but it not only justifies the decision to make a sequel to The Godfather, it necessitates it.
The genius of Part II lies in the way it tells the story of Michael's rise to absolute power, and the loss of humanity that accompanies it, in parallel with his father's ascension forty years earlier. At some point, the contrast between father and son stops feeling like a novelty and starts to take on the shape of a bad omen for what's to come in Michael's future. Having escaped the slaughter which claimed his entire family in Sicily as a boy aged nine, Vito was born for this life. On the streets of New York, we witness a man willing to wait, watch, learn, his patience an invaluable virtue.
Hidden in the shadows of Don Fanucci's apartment building, unmoving, he waits for his target, taking the shot not when the Don's back is turned but when he pivots, astonished, to find the young Vito facing him down with a gun wrapped in a towel. The next time we check in with him, he's revered and respected by the men and women in the market, but he remains compassionate. He helps negotiate a more reasonable rent for an elderly woman in the neighborhood. At the market, he pays for his oranges.
The hit on Fanucci is a significant moment, but while it accelerates Vito's rise, it doesn't fundamentally change him as a person — his life was always destined to take this route. The sense of absolute purpose on De Niro's face as Vito executes the hit is staggering.
The very first time we meet Michael in The Godfather, he tells Kay (Diane Keaton) the cold reality of the business his family are in, but assures her he has no interest in that life. And we believe him — before he's even introduced, the Corleone family photo is put on hold by Vito because Michael is nowhere to be found. He was never meant to be a part of this picture. The intervention of fate and the escalating war with the Five Families drag him reluctantly to the top, draining him of all the good inside.
As young Vito slaughters the elderly Don Ciccio during a trip to Sicily, settling the score for the childhood brutality that made him an orphan, Michael watches from the solitude of the lake house as Fredo is assassinated, his earlier forgiveness an elaborate deceit, transformation into a monster complete. Vito never wanted this for Michael, but regardless, it's the hand he was dealt. Destiny is a cruel mistress.
Coppola's sequel is an epic in the true sense of the word, scratching away at the psyches of its characters until all that's left is a dark portrait of what it really means to be entangled in the mafia. If The Godfather had a sense of romance about that life, Part II is a slow-burn morality tale, one which denounces the romance as an illusion — low-hanging fruit designed to tempt, and ultimately ruin, all who take a bite.
What else comes close? Sure, Goodfellas is a deliriously chaotic portrait of drugs, sex and suburban bloodshed, and three decades on, Scarface still has something relevant to say about the opportunities for immigrants in America (not to mention the fact that Tony Montana is a fucking badass). Along with various other classics, both films work as great standalone stories, but they don't define the genre. How could they?
Put simply, no other gangster movie possesses even a tenth of the sprawling scope, the epic ambition or the deep thematic weight of The Godfather: Part II. For better or worse, Ford Coppola's film cuts to the very core of what it is to be a gangster. That's why it is, and will probably always be, the greatest gangster movie of all time.