From the Vault Review: ‘The Godfather Part III’ (1990)

By Anthony Miglieri

The Godfather Part III is the worst movie of all time. Or so its reputation might have you believe. “Sofia Coppola is terrible,” many say. “It’s just boring,” others opine. And still, there are some like myself who have avoided Part III like a medical checkup: I knew that I should brave it, but did I really need to? However, it is not difficult at all to find positive reviews of The Godfather Part III, both from the time of release (it was even nominated for Best Picture at the 1991 Oscars) and from more recent reconsideration think pieces. How could I not give a shot to the sequel to perhaps my favorite movie ever, The Godfather Part II? I finally caved. I had hope.

Lo and behold, I actually liked… some of it.

The plot of The Godfather Part III takes place in 1979, twenty years after the events of The Godfather Part II (1974) conclude, as an aged Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) tries to completely legitimize what was once the Corleone crime family. In the film’s opening scenes, he partners with the Catholic church to the tune of $100 million. Michael’s son, Tony (Franc D’Ambrosio), decides to break from the family business to become an opera singer. His daughter, Mary (Sofia Coppola), takes a (bit too much of a) liking to Vincent Mancini (Andy Garcia), illegitimate and wily son of Sonny Corleone (James Caan) from The Godfather (1972). All the while, Michael reckons with the demons of his past.

The greatest success of The Godfather Part III is the natural continuation of Michael Corleone’s character. Even though he is portrayed by the gravel-voiced Pacino that we now associate more with the bellows of Scent of a Woman (1992) and Heat (1995), this is the very same Michael that said to his father in the original Godfather, “We’ll get there, Pop,” and said to his wife in Part II, “In a few years, the Corleone family will be completely legitimate.” Michael’s desire to go straight drives much of Part III, and his guilt for having killed his brother Fredo, among many others, eviscerates him from the inside out.

Pacino’s performance is all there: it’s the black hole eyes from Part II, it’s the new lines carved into his face, and it’s sometimes the smile that all but evaporated when Apollonia turned to rubble before his eyes in The Godfather. The performance is so good that it makes Part III worth seeing by itself. Pacino even manages a full-bore stroke when forced to swim against the natural disaster that is Sofia Coppola’s performance, but we will get there later…

Besides Pacino, there are a handful more components to enjoy if not marvel at in Part III. The cinematography by “Prince of Darkness” Gordon Willis, although not has inky nor as visceral as in the first two installments, maintains the antiqued hue and patience essential to the Godfather saga. Similarly, Francis Ford Coppola as director is like returning Corleone family friend Johnny Fontaine: he’s still got the pipes, just a little rusty, a little familiar. He can still conjure an onscreen Italian get-together with the best of ’em, but there’s no Paulie Gatto catching two gabagool, capicol, and a prosciutto.

Among the new cast, Andy Garcia is a minor highlight as the son of Santino. Garcia has got the look and the fire to fit right in, but he sometimes goes off the rails in emulating Caan’s crazy. Also, his arc from ear-chomping enforcer to slicked-back hood is a little herky-jerky, less his fault than the script’s. Joe Mantegna (who plays mobster Fat Tony on The Simpsons) as Joey Zasa is also decent; other viewers find him distracting, but Zasa is supposed to be a second-rate boss anyway. One more little surprise is Talia Shire as Connie Corleone. Besides her pivotal scene with Michael late in Part II, she and her character get as much agency as ever here, supporting her only living brother and even lending a hand in a couple killings.

Much of what The Godfather Part III fails to carry over from its legendary predecessors is their narrative and thematic tautness. The earlier films patiently packed their immense runtimes (about 180 minutes and 200 minutes, respectively), whereas Part III stares down its huge 160-minute husk and struggles to fill it. A little under half of this film is actually fairly riveting, but the rest slowly descends into tedium, undercooked character work, or even silliness in some cases. Some scenes are just plain repetitive, the same ideas delivered in slightly altered ways.

Strange as it sounds, I also think Part III spends too much time in Sicily. In the first two films, the town of Corleone is less a location than a state of mind, somewhere where people are born, fall in love, reminisce, and die. It is a memory. Here, what feels like half of the film takes place in this land of stone and wine, and the increasingly flabby plot lets air out of the place’s mystique. At one point, Michael says something like, “I love it here in Sicily,” gesturing to the picturesque landscape. So do we; this should go without saying.

Another point at which Part III diverges from its predecessors is in its depiction of violence. The Godfather films have always been violent and bloody, but the killings here seem colder and more exploitative. Case in point: the scene in which a penthouse’s worth of elderly bosses are mown down by uzis from an unseen helicopter. This sequence builds up quite well—chandeliers shake, codgers quake—but the carnage is more Scarface (1983) than Godfather.

Sonny’s death in the original film also involved a mini-marathon of writhing and squibs, but that bloodshed was more horror and emotion compared to this 9mm spectacle. Other slayings, such as when a pair of glasses find themselves protruding from an aorta, smell of “let’s outdo Moe Green.” I regret leaning so much on comparison to the original film and Part II in this review, but Part III itself depends so much on them that it feels necessary.

Probably the most infamous misstep of The Godfather Part III is the casting of Sofia Coppola, real life daughter of Francis Ford, as Michael’s daughter. Surely she couldn’t be as wooden, as painful, as flat-out bad as the reputation and her 1991 Razzie award would suggest? Well, she sure is. I usually don’t pick on acting too much—my perception of performances is more instinctual than technical—but Coppola is a block of styrofoam. She’s bland. She’s utterly devoid of terrestrial life. She emits irritating sounds when the script gives her words.

On top of that, a decent amount of her dialogue is noticeably dubbed, adding yet another layer of artifice to her meek marionette act. She single-handedly ruins the final scenes, which might still be plenty powerful if you cover her face with your thumb. Apparently, Winona Ryder backed out of the role near the beginning of shooting to do Edward Scissorhands with then-beau Johnny Depp. Curse you, Depp.

I’m just about right down the middle with The Godfather Part III. It makes an admirable and sometimes fascinating attempt at extending the monolithic story of Michael Corleone, it features one great performance, and it has the technical craft to keep tangential company with the first two films. However, the story is bloated and jumbled and the acting is simply not up to snuff too much lot of the time. The Godfather Part III is one of the few films that might be lynched for not being perfect. I, however, admire the gall it takes to follow up two all-timers, but Part III’s fingertips only ever tickle greatness.

The Godfather and The Godfather Part II throttle greatness.

Rating: 2.5/5