A film review by Craig J. Koban December 22, 2020, 

THE GODFATHER CODA: 

THE DEATH OF MICHAEL CORLEONE jjj
 

2020, R, 157 mins.

Al Pacino as Don Michael Corleone  /  Diane Keaton as Kay Adams Michelson  /  Talia Shire as Connie Corleone Rizzi  /  Andy Garcia as Vincent Mancini  /  Eli Wallach as Don Altobello  /  Joe Mantegna as Joey Zasa  /  George Hamilton as BJ Harrison  /  Bridget Fonda as Grace Hamilton  /  Sofia Coppola as Mary Corleone

Directed by Francis Ford Coppola  /  Written by Coppola and Mario Puzo

Francis Ford Coppola's THE GODFATHER: PART III opened in cinemas 30 years ago this month, which, in turn, came several years after the landmark success of the first two multiple Academy Award winning entries in the series that adapted author Mario Puzo's original novels.  The initial GODFATHER film was a massive audience and critical darling effort that put Coppola on the cinematic map, and its follow-up - just as praised, if not more so - solidified the director as one of the pre-eminent artists of his generation. Then a few decades later - and after a series of box office failures in the 80s like ONE FROM THE HEART and THE COTTON CLUB - came THE GODFATHER: PART III, which Coppola - by his own admission - begrudgingly opted to make because (a) he desperately needed a hit and (b) Paramount Pictures' stubbornly insisted on a third entry. 

Despite solid reviews for the time and a handful of Oscar nominations (including Best Picture), THE GODFATHER: PART III has regrettably emerged as the black sheep of this mafia drama trilogy and has earned (somewhat rightfully) a reputation for being the weakest of the saga.  I've always admired the picture while not turning a blind eye to its faults (many of which will be commented on in a bit), but even Coppola himself has never been thoroughly satisfied with his resulting work.  Flashforward 30 years and the now 81-year-old filmmaker has returned to his lesser GODFATHER film and - with the support and backing of Paramount - has formulated a complete re-edit of the film, replete with a vastly different and new opening, ending, and a whole new title (the sort of more longwinded and spoilery THE GODFATHER CODA: THE DEATH OF MICHAEL CORLEONE).  It should be noted that this isn't the first time that Coppola has re-engineered his gangster opus (or other films on his resume, for that matter): He infamously took the first two GODFATHERS and edited them together in chronological order in 1977 to form one seven hour film, not to mention that he's made so many cuts of APOCALYPSE NOW that I've frankly lost track.   

So, here's the question: Is THE GODFATHER CODA vastly superior to THE GODFATHER: PART III and worth the long wait?  

The short answer: sort of.  

The new iteration is not a radically re-imagined version of polarizing THE GODFATHER: PART III, but its changes nevertheless segue between sizeable and gracefully subtle.  It should be noted that with THE GODFATHER CODA that Coppola has conjured up, for the positive, a leaner and more tightly edited trilogy closer that flows with better pacing and momentum.  The film remains an ambitious minded, impeccably acted, handsomely produced, and, yes, flawed multi-generational mob family epic finale. 

 

 

Perhaps the best way to describe THE GODFATHER CODA is that it feels more condensed and complete and serves the purposes of being a genuine coda (in musical terms, it's a passage that brings a piece to a sense of closure, and in Coppola's mind facilitates his original conception of the film being an epilogue to what's come before).  As for the changes, well that comes right smack dab at the beginning of the film (and moving forward in this review, we'll be diving into spoilers, but I'm not sure if such a warning is necessary for such an old sequel).  The original GODFATHER: PART III always had a hastily cobbled together opening, which juxtaposed images from an abandoned Corleone Lake Tahoe home (the place of the murder of Michael Corleone's brother Fredo by his own order) with a sober voiceover track by Michael (Al Pacino) lamenting on the past and his relationship with his family.  This is all refreshingly abandoned here, with Coppola instead opening with a scene that before played out much later in the original.  We witness Michael - right after the opening title card - negotiating a massive million dollar deal with the struggling Vatican Bank, whose financially strapped Archbishop is clamoring for Corleone investment.  Not only does is this new intro staggeringly better, but it also echoes the similar structure of THE GODFATHER PART I as it introduced us to Marlon Brando's iconic Vito Corleone meeting with one of his underlines that's begging for help. 

The greatness of this new opening is that it immediately cements the core themes and character dynamics of the piece: The intense yearning of Michael to abandon his sinful life of crime and murder and go straight up legit with philanthropy via his vast fortune.  From this point THE GODFATHER CODA doesn't stray all that far away from the basic narrative trajectory of the previous version.  The story transitions to the swanky after-party of the Corleone/Vatican deal and introduces us to some of the new players in the saga, like Andy Garcia's hot headed nephew of Michael, Vincent (who's an uncanny echo of his dead father Sonny - played by James Cann in the first film - for being a shoot-first loose cannon).  It seems like we get to meet this key character much quicker in THE GODFATHER CODA than before, which is a good thing, not to mention that his fractured business relationship with another mafioso in Joey Zazza (Joe Mantegna), who more quickly emerges here as a threat to Michael's yearning to forget the past and go straight.  His wife, on the other hand, in Kay (Diane Keaton) sees past this newly acquired good guy facade of her husband and still perceives him to be a danger to everyone around him, including his daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola), who seems somewhat oblivious to her dad's past dark deeds. 

The middle portions of THE GODFATHER CODA don't tend to migrate too much from the original, and Coppola has, more or less, just made little tweaks and edits here and there to make for a more streamlined and agreeably shorter film (the new runtime, by the way, runs a better 157 minutes, ten-plus minutes shorter than PART III).  In particular, Eli Wallach's competing Don Altobella seems to occupy less scenes this go around, but it should be noted that Sophia Coppola's role doesn't appear to be truncated in any way.  Her inclusion in the film (and performance) has always been the stuff of controversy and criticism over the years (she was, to be fair, a very last minute substitute for Wionna Ryder, who had to drop out of the film at the eleventh hour due to health concerns).  Long before she became a respected and Oscar winning director like her dad in her own right, Sophia Coppola's acting career was essentially over after the poor notices she received from critics and fans for her work as Mary, but I frankly feel that most of the hostility towards her has been hyperbolic.  She's definitely an acting greenhorn here, and some of her scenes have an untrained stiffness to them (I won't elaborate any further on her death scene...that one's been done...to death), but I still think that she acclimated herself fine in a handful of scenes, especially in one of the finest moments in the film that she shares with her first cousin in Vincent while engaging in some heavy incestuous innuendo while prepping food.  She's quite natural in this moment and plays well off of Garcia.  Unfortunately, I doubt that haters of her performance will have their mind changed by watching THE GODFATHER CODA. 

Honestly, watching this new take made me respect some of the other performances even more, like Garcia's criminally undervalued turn as his itchy trigger fingered sociopath that his stress plagued uncle Michael simply sees as no-good to him right now, but feels obligated to take him in out of family loyalty.  I don't think that Garcia was ever better in a film before or since THE GODFATHER: PART III, and Pacino himself here is so thanklessly dialed in that I firmly believe that it's one of his most overlooked performances.  This Michael is more emotionally and physically broken down by life and forever haunted by the unpardonable choices he has made in it, and you can sense the wounded vulnerability of the character throughout because of Pacino's choices here.  His moment of silent anguish in the film's climax might be one of the more powerfully sad images of the whole trilogy. 

Speaking of endings, that's where THE GODFATHER CODA - like the aforementioned beginning - really changes things up.  Everything builds up to it in the same manner - like the masterful opera sequence that plays out beforehand - but once poor Mary is sacrificed by a botched Michael assassination attempt by his enemies, Coppola then shifts us to the future and shows an elderly and frail Michael sitting all alone in the Sicilian country.  This was still in THE GODFATHER: PART III, but this go around Coppola has edited out the unintentionally funny moment of Michael slumping out of his chair and flopping onto the ground in death and instead doesn't show him pass away at all, but rather cuts to a title card with an old proverb about a Sicilian's penchant for never forgetting.  This new ending is more compelling, mostly because it renders the new title wonderfully ironic as well as emphasizing that Michael seems to have faced a fate worse than death: Living into the winter years of his life estranged from all of those that loved him for all of the terrible decisions that cost him so much in the past.  The new finale to THE GODFATHER CODA has a more poetic sense of somber, long term tragedy to it now.

Alas, THE GODFATHER CODA still remains the third best GODFATHER film.  Having said that, what GODFATHER sequel could have topped the first two installments?  That notion alone makes one understand why Coppola was so reticent for so many years to make PART III in the first place, but was (in his words) "seduced" back in by the studio to give it one last kick at the can after a decade of artistic flops.  THE GODFATER CODA feels paradoxically different from PART III, but similar in many respects, but it's certainly an unmissable film for series diehards, or cinephiles that love seeing alternate takes on familiar classics.  On a negative, those that have felt mightily stung by the original GODFATHER: PART III probably won't have their minds changed with this newly minted version, but I, for one, have emerged as an apologist for the franchise ender over the years, which makes me coming out of THE GODFATHER CODA appreciating Coppola's original work here (and alterations) even more.  Very few filmmakers the age of Coppola are given offers they can't refuse to go back to old films on their resumes long after release and re-make them to their original specifications and vision.  That makes THE GODFATHER CODA essential viewing and - flaws and all - a worthy part of this densely layered franchise that chronicled family, crime, power hungry ruthlessness, and failed attempts at redemption.     

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