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Third try: Francis Ford Coppola reworks ‘The Godfather Part III’

Family reunion: "Mario Puzo's The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone."Paramount Pictures

Are there do-overs in life? There are in the movies, especially since the rise of aftermarkets like VHS, DVD, and streaming video. The director’s cut has become a symbol of industry and cultural clout. George Lucas updated the special effects in his first “Star Wars” movies to mixed reviews. And Francis Ford Coppola has spent the latter half of his career tinkering with the films he made during the first half. There was “Apocalypse Now Redux” in 2001 and “Apocalypse Now Final Cut” in 2019. “The Cotton Club: Encore” tried mightily to turn that 1984 flop into a 2019 revisionist success.

And there are the “Godfather” films, which Coppola has been slicing and dicing into different configurations for years: “The Godfather Saga,” “The Godfather Epic,” “The Godfather Trilogy.” For my and many others’ money, the original versions – “The Godfather” (1972) and “The Godfather Part II” (1974) – are two of the greatest stand-alone experiences in the history of the movies, no fiddling needed. But then there’s “The Godfather III,” the passed-over Peggy Schuyler of Coppola’s trilogy, mocked upon its release in 1990 and referred to in low, embarrassed tones ever since.


Until now.

Opening in selected theaters on Dec. 4 and coming to Blu-ray and video-on-demand on Dec. 8, “The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone” is Coppola’s attempt to restore and re-edit his belated third entry into co-partner status with the first two films. The attempt is largely and surprisingly successful, a judiciously trimmed and re-sorted rethinking of how Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone tries to get out of the crime business and how it “pulls him back in” again. “Coda” retains one major flaw from the original “III” – and I bet you can guess who she is – but in most other respects, the new version is a genuine improvement: more streamlined, more coherent, more tragic. Coppola’s themes of redemption and regret, hubris and fate, seem more clearly delineated, in ways that conjure Greek myth and in ways that are frail and life-sized.


The director makes one change up front that radically changes how we enter into the movie. If you’ve seen “The Godfather III” but not in a while, you may remember a fuzzy, hard-to-encapsulate plotline about Michael trying to go legit by buying a controlling stake in Internazionale Immobiliare, an Italian conglomerate with Vatican ties. That storyline was introduced about 30 minutes into the film, in a sit-down with a powerful archbishop (Donal Donnelly), but only after a long opening sequence at a reception that introduces all the old and new players in the Corleone family.

From left: Diane Keaton, George Hamilton, and Al Pacino in "The Godfather Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone."Paramount Pictures

By moving the meeting with the archbishop to the very first scene, Coppola establishes the stakes in a way that realigns “The Godfather Coda” along a straight narrative spine. We now know what Michael wants and why and how he hopes to get it. By putting the crowded reception second, we learn who is going to help him (Vincent, the hothead bastard nephew played by Andy Garcia) and who’s not (Joe Mantegna as mafia upstart Joey Zasa and Eli Wallach as a duplicitous old don). We get the scorecard first and then the players, as it should be.

“The Godfather III” ran 162 minutes, “The Godfather Coda” is 157. Five minutes isn’t a lot for an investment this mammoth, yet the new version feels fleeter, tighter. The performances stand out more starkly: Garcia’s coolly sexy Vincent, a worthy successor to both Don Corleone and the actor playing him; Talia Shire’s scheming Connie Corleone, transformed by age into a magnificent Borgia; Diane Keaton, whose Kay is wiser and sadder with the distance she has put between herself and her ex-husband. More than ever, the scenes between Kay and Michael are this movie’s broken heart.


Given Pacino’s late career acting style – hoo-hah – we forget that Michael Corleone was one of the star’s quietest, most watchful characterizations, and here that hush is weighted down with a sadness that is palpable. This man had his brother killed, remember? Michael remembers, and he feels the guilt like gravity. There’s a late-night kitchen scene that plays like “Lear,” and a confession to a Vatican priest (Raf Vallone) that is what the entire movie – maybe the entire trilogy – has been pointing to all along.

By contrast, the bloodletting in “The Godfather Coda” is operatic and occasionally pandering to the expectations of the crowd. That Atlantic City helicopter massacre seemed over the top in 1990 and is more so 30 years on. The other great flaw with the third “Godfather” movie is the casting of Sofia Coppola as Michael’s adored daughter Mary Corleone. As is well known, Winona Ryder was set to play the part but dropped out at the last minute due to nervous exhaustion. Coppola pere had used family before – his sister Shire as Connie, his father Carmine as composer (and there’s a brief appearance by Catherine Scorsese, Martin’s mother, in a Little Italy scene). But Mary, a dutiful daughter made rebellious by her incestuous love for her cousin Vincent, is a key component of this film, and while Sofia brings a nicely gauche naturalism that works in some scenes, she simply doesn’t have the skill set to keep up with a cast of professional actors. Her flat line readings jolt a viewer out of “Coda” whenever she’s onscreen.


Of course, the daughter would go on to become a successful and celebrated director herself, with “The Virgin Suicides” (1999), “Lost in Translation” (2003), “Marie Antoinette” (2006), and others. Sometimes nepotism works, just not in the ways one expects. Watching “The Godfather Coda,” I was struck by how few scenes Mary Corleone is actually in and wondered if Sofia’s father had cut back on her screen time in the re-edit. It may be that the film now cruises along with such confidence that the character is less of a stumbling block than she once seemed.

Al Pacino in "The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone."Paramount Pictures

Coppola has definitely tweaked the final shots of his third film, so that what was an unintentionally comic farewell image of Michael now fades out a few seconds earlier, with the character putting on the dark glasses that have come to symbolize his blindness. This new ending doesn’t land a punch the way a “Godfather” fan might hope, but at least it doesn’t completely whiff. And as Coppola’s epic of the dark side of the American dream acquires ever more legendary status – Paramount has just announced a limited TV series that will dramatize the making of “The Godfather” – it’s good news that the passed-over sibling has joined the family group shot at last.


It prompts one to wonder if perhaps “The Godfather III” wasn’t that bad all along. Perhaps the early negative response caught the public’s and media’s attention and set like cement? “The Godfather Coda” stands as a re-vision, but also a reintroduction. Maybe the movie has changed. Maybe we have. How about both?