In the years since the 1990 release of “The Godfather Part III,” Francis Coppola’s follow-up to his brilliant twin masterpieces of the early 1970s, the third chapter of the trilogy almost became a punch line — held up as the classic example of how even the greatest movie franchises often experience a steep decline when we get to Part III.
From the infamous casting decisions that saw Coppola’s inexperienced daughter Sofia taking over the role of Michael’s daughter Mary after Winona Ryder bowed out, and George Hamilton playing the Corleone family consigliere when Robert Duvall’s financial demands weren’t met, to Al Pacino’s unfortunate spiky buzz cut to the inevitable comparisons to two of the greatest films ever made, the deck was stacked against “The Godfather Part III.”
No, it’s not in the same league as the originals — but the notion “Godfather III” was some sort of unmitigated bomb is nonsense. It’s an uneven and at times meandering story, and the hard truth is Ms. Coppola’s earnest but flat performance was a major distraction, but the film grossed the equivalent of $270 million in today’s dollars, was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best picture and received mixed-to-positive reviews, with the late Roger Ebert giving it three and a half stars in the Sun-Times, writing, “ ‘It is, I suspect, not even possible to understand this film without knowing the first two, and yet, knowing them, ‘Part III’ works better than it should, evokes the same sense of wasted greatness, of misdirected genius.”
Thirty years after the December 1990 premiere of “The Godfather Part III,” director/producer/co-writer Francis Ford Coppola and Paramount have released a restored and re-edited version with Coppola’s original title: “Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone.” Having watched the original and the recut back-to-back, I found the new cut to be more cohesive and more impactful, including a final shot that proves less is often more when one is telling such an epic tale. Coppola intended the third film to be an epilogue that serves to sum up and bring closure to the original saga, and this recut to breathe new life into the picture. He has achieved just that.
Set in 1979, “The Godfather, Coda” still has the rich brown and gold sepia earth tones that permeated the entire franchise, but the restored version looks brighter and crisper. The first major change in the timeline comes right off the bat; whereas “Part III” opened with flashbacks to the killing of Fredo in “Godfather II” and took a long wind-up before getting into a major storyline about Michael investing $600 million with the Vatican, “Coda” opens on Michael meeting with Archbishop Gilday (Donal Donnelly), the head of the Vatican bank. (This scene didn’t occur until the 40-minute mark of the original.) This immediately establishes that “Coda” will be in large part about Michael’s desire to leave the crime world behind him once and for all, leading to the movie’s most quoted line: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!”
Coppola excised a scene with Michael receiving the Order of Saint Sebastian honor from the Catholic Church and goes straight to the reception, thus bringing about an earlier entrance for Andy Garcia’s pivotal character of Vincent Mancini, Sonny Corleone’s illegitimate son. Other sequences were trimmed of extraneous exposition, reducing the total running time of the film from 2 hours and 43 minutes to 2 hours and 37 minutes.
Every time George Hamilton appears onscreen, we can’t help but miss the great Robert Duvall, and though Coppola has slightly trimmed his daughter Sofia’s screen time, it’s still an unfortunately amateurish performance, especially when contrasted with the go-big-or-go-home method of Andy Garcia as her volatile cousin and love interest. But Pacino and Diane Keaton as Kay, his ex-wife (and the love of his life) and the mother of his children, are magnificent together in some of the movie’s quietest and most effective moments. And there’s something great and offbeat about Joe Mantegna’s performance as the violent mob boss Joey Zasa; Mantegna performs his lines as if he’s onstage doing a play by his longtime collaborator David Mamet, e.g., when Mantegna as Zasa says in staccato fashion, “Yes, it’s true, if anyone could say such a thing, he would not be a friend, he would be a dog.”
As Michael continues his tragedy-marred quest to free himself of his violent past while his nephew Vincent becomes increasingly like Michael’s brother Sonny, “The Godfather, Coda” revels in its callbacks the first two films, from assassinations carried out against major, religious-themed events to the return of famed singer/actor Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), who famously asked for Don Vito Corleone to help him get cast in a career-making movie in “Godfather I” and now returns to serenade Michael and his guests at the reception following Michael’s honor from the church, to the periodic appearances of oranges, always oranges, which almost always are a bad omen.
Perhaps the most significant change in “Coda” is the ending, which Coppola has sculpted in a way that closes the curtain with more dignity and resonance. The third “Godfather” movie will always be the third best “Godfather” movie, but Coppola’s new vision does slightly narrow what remains a fairly large gap. A “Godfather” film that’s a distant third is still a “Godfather” film worth treasuring.