The Godfather: Part III … revisited

It’s not terrible.

That’s what I said to myself after viewing “The Godfather: Part III,” Francis Ford Coppola’s 1990 follow-up to his landmark films from the 1970s. “The Godfather” and “The Godfather: Part II” were the golden children of their era, and rightfully so, but what to make of their much maligned younger sibling?

After a revisit to the series (and subsequent purchase of the DVD set), and for better and for worse, I stand by my original statement.

“The Godfather: Part III” puts us back in the action as Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) is trying to make his business (and family) legitimate. He’s set up a foundation in his father’s name, and he stands to make a killing with a new conglomerate deal with European ‘families,’ and while some of his old partners are a little upset about being cut out of the ungodly riches, only one is seeking vengeance.

And as usual, Michael has family problems; his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia), a hot head just like his father, Santino (James Caan in Part 1 and 2), who makes no secret of his ‘family’ ambitions. Michael’s children are another concern; his daughter, Mary (Sophia Coppola), is head of the foundation and hell bent on getting involved with her cousin. His son, Tony (Franc D’Ambrosio), like a young Michael in Part 1, wants nothing to do with the family and longs his own life.

It’s a lot for Michael to deal with, and as he has gotten older and more vulnerable, he’s forced to think more about his past choices. “The Godfather: Part III” is first and foremost about reckoning; for the first time, Michael sees that while in his past he could walk away from his sins, they’ve never left him. He’s often touted as a reasonable man, like his father Vito before him, and while reason tells him that murder is the easiest way out of a hard place, it leaves marks that time will never erase. This is still the Michael who ordered the hit on his brother, who cut his wife off from contact with their children, who struck back because he could. His bruised soul may long for forgiveness, but his reason knows he will never get it.

This time around, Pacino’s performance teeters on the edge of parody, like much of his later career, but he holds himself back when it’s needed; Michael’s scenes with his ex-wife, Kay (Diane Keaton), have a richness to them the overall film lacks; here are two actors who trust each other to do and say the right things. Kay has always been Michael’s conscience, and she’s the only one who’s willing to tell a frail old man the harsh, bitter truth about himself and his way of life. Their years together left scars on both of them, and Pacino and Keaton don’t hold back when cutting into their characters’ wounds.

There’s a lot to like here, but what’s so frustrating is the drama lacking in the bigger picture. In Part 1 and 2, there was an emotional attachment to the violence; Michael executed his enemies to protect his family, “to save [them] from the horrors of the world.” Here, Michael’s trapped in a spiral of death, with his own at the end, which he can’t escape from; he kills now because it’s the way things are done. By now, it’s routine for him and unfortunately, it’s routine for us. The violence now is all about money, and while that fits in with the time period, the emotional connection with the various killings is gone, and the audience is poorer for it.

The other major disappointment is Sophia Coppola’s performance as Mary; most of what can be said about her performance has been said by others, but her emotionless delivery is such a distraction that the inappropriate laughter from her “acting” kept breaking the movie’s hold on me. She didn’t ruin the film, but it’s a major misstep that should have been avoided.

But as I geek out on my DVD set, I realize that I can’t hate this edition in the series; I love these characters, and Michael’s arc comes to the right conclusion, even with some unintentional bumps along the way.

“The Godfather: Part III” is not terrible; it’s just not what it could have been. 

“The Godfather: Part III” (1990)

Directed by Francis Ford Copolla

Written by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Copolla

Starring: Al Pacino (Michael Corleone)

Diane Keaton (Kay Adams Michelson)

Andy Garcia (Vincent Mancini)

Sophia Coppola (Mary Corleone)