You’d like to say Michael Corleone has his father’s eyes, only you can’t really see his father’s eyes. Gordon Willis made sure of that. But in this sequel-that’s-also-a-prequel you can see everyone’s eyes just fine, and maybe that’s the most basic reason why the movie doesn’t seem as grandly totemic to me as the original. Michael is precise, feline, then explosive in spots – we see the machinations, the Michaelvellian moves, if you please, and we see it all in his eyes, the windows to his ambition. But a fully-lit face means there’s not the same sense of unknowable, melancholic danger in his presence as there is in Brando’s. In the original, it’s the weight of that titanic, yet somehow receding performance that keeps everything hairpin tense, even when he’s his own mumbling version of docile and accommodating, or even when he’s nowhere near the scene. What Michael can do is a sort of second-generation gravitas in that Pacino way, show ‘em the whole iris over that ever-infuriated mouth, supremacy channeled through the ends of his cigarette-clenched fingers – but pop had all that in a stroke of his cheek. So that purr of quiet menace at the heart of the tale is missing.
Part II makes up for it partially with showier political complications (Senate hearings and such), though doing so sacrifices more than a few layers of the hermetically sealed world of the first part, where external players (Hollywood producers, police chiefs) seem more like flies buzzing around Brando’s head. There’s a less-cramped tone overall in II that, despite the sometimes pitch-dark cinematography, makes the whole movie seem more sun-lit.
Another minus for me is in the prequel segments: we get to watch DeNiro becoming Vito, but we don’t get to see DeNiro be Vito. While we see how his eye for justice meets a sociopathic business sense, killing the former neighborhood don cause it’s the right thing to do, and how his streetwise charm fills out that power vacuum, and while we know that young Vito’s lean and wily charisma will eventually be absorbed into old Vito’s slow-motion, glad-handing brand of power, we never actually see that crucial calcification on film, that essential moment when DeNiro recedes into the darkness behind the desk… forgive me, maybe even padded, LaMotta-like, silently waving in his next client. Coppola went for subtle instead, but plug me in the forehead with a .38 special, I wanted to see that moment.
All that said, I’m not about to discount this movie. When its only possible comparison is one of the greatest movies ever made, it’s impossible not to find something lacking. In fact, though, Part II is done with such aggressive love and precision that anything happening inside of it, melodramatic or mundane – the setting of a pear on a table, two men talking about a rug over coffee, a group of mobsters eating cake – is exquisitely engrossing. I found myself, most of the time, forgetting that I had to write anything at all about it, and just got lost in the yellow-tinted tragedy of it all.