'The Godfather, Coda: The Death Of Michael Corleone' Review: Francis Ford Coppola Offers A 'Godfather III' Re-Cut You Can't Refuse

When it comes to Francis Ford Coppola's Godfather trilogy, everyone seems to be in agreement: the first two movies are full-blown masterpieces, and the less said about the third film the better. We shouldn't cry too hard for The Godfather Part III – despite its modern-day reputation of being a dud, it was actually well-received at the box office and even netted itself seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture!). But over the years, Coppola's swan song for the Corleone family has become the red-headed stepchild of the trilogy.

Now, in the spirit of his multiple cuts of Apocalypse Now and the more recent Cotton Club Encore, Coppola has gone back and reworked the film into the awkwardly-titled The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael CorleoneThis is what he and Godfather creator Mario Puzo wanted audiences to experience – not the third entry in a trilogy, but rather an epilogue to what came before. But is this new version really all that different?

No, not really. As far as big changes go, Coppola has tweaked the beginning and end and then trimmed down some scenes. The theatrical cut opened with a haunting look at the abandoned, rotting, ghostly Corleone compound at Lake Tahoe. It was Coppola signaling the death and decay that lurks in every shadowy corner of the film. Here, the filmmaker nixes that, jumping instead to a scene where aging Corleone Family Godfather Michael (Al Pacino) meets with the head of the Vatican Bank. The bank has racked up a huge deficit and they want this distinguished mobster to bail them out. And Michael is more than happy to intervene – not because he's a particularly faithful man. Rather, he longs to be seen as a legitimate businessman, not just another greasy hoodlum. But more than that, he wants redemption.

Michael has been responsible for the deaths of many people, but it's the murder of his older brother Fredo that hangs over his head like a rain cloud about to burst. "I killed my mother's son," he weeps in confession at one point. "I killed my father's son." Maybe, just maybe, he can use his ill-gotten gains to buy his way into heaven. And so the stage is set for what's to come: Michael will spend almost the entire runtime of The Godfather, Coda chasing redemption and trying to leave his life of crime behind. But that's easier said than done. As Michael tells us, "Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in." And just when he thought he was finally going to atone for his sins, violence will come back to strike down that which he loves.

This is big, bold, sweeping stuff. It's operatic – and Coppola isn't afraid to hammer us over the head with that fact, setting a big climactic moment during an actual opera. And it's melodramatic, and it's melancholy, and it's bleak. Michael Corleone's life is a tragedy. When we first met him in The Godfather, he was a fresh-faced war hero who was never supposed to be part of the family business. By The Godfather Part II, he had become a cold, calculating killer. Now, in this third entry, he wants to make amends. He wants to set things right – because death is right around the corner, and who can ever know the true heat of the fires that await the damned?

None of this is new. If you've seen The Godfather Part III, you've essentially seen The Godfather, Coda. Those expecting something drastic, like Coppola's Apocalypse Now: Redux, are going to be disappointed. Instead, the filmmaker has made little cuts here and there. Cuts that indeed make the lengthy film and its sprawling narratives a bit more concise – it's eleven minutes shorter than the theatrical cut. And while that may make for a (slightly) brisker experience, it can't fix all the problems that are irreconcilably baked into the film's DNA.

Namely: casting. Much has been said over the years about the performance (or lack thereof) of Coppola's daughter Sofia Coppola, here playing Michael's daughter Mary. Sofia Coppola eventually bounced back as an acclaimed filmmaker, but at the time, her work in Godfather III was savaged. Even critics who liked the film couldn't overlook her stiff, wooden performance and her weirdly monotone line delivery that torpedos any sense of emotion or pathos. To be fair, she was never meant to play the part. Winona Ryder was originally cast, and it's hard not to imagine some alternate universe where we got that version of The Godfather Part III. But Ryder ended up dropping out of the pic due to nervous exhaustion at the last minute, leaving director Coppola in a bit of a bind. Never one to shy away from using his family members – sister Talia Shire appeared in all three Godfather films, and here she has her biggest role in the franchise yet, serving as Michael's unofficial consigliere – Coppola cast daughter Sofia in the part.

It was a huge mistake. But Sofia Coppola isn't the only bit of miscasting on display in the film. Franchise player Robert Duvall wanted more money to return, and Coppola and company made the boneheaded mistake of not giving him what he wanted. As a result, Duvall's Tom Hagen, an important member of the family and the film franchise, was replaced by a new character, a lawyer named B.J. Harrison. Harrison is played by the perpetually tanned George Hamilton, and the actor never once gels with the material. He just hangs around in the background, a piece of the scenery.

And then there's Andy Garcia as hotheaded Vincent, the illegitimate son of Michael's other dead brother, Sonny. Garcia is a good actor with the right material, but he's too clumsy here. He's meant to be channeling the same sort of violent rage that was so inherent in James Caan's Sonny in the first Godfather, but Garcia can never find that spark. His tough-guy antics always seem like play-acting, and when he ends up taking over the family due to Michael's illness, it strains credulity. We can buy outsider Michael inheriting the family at the end of The Godfather because of his experiences over the course of that great first film. The same can't be said for Vincent.

Not helping matters is a cringe-inducing romance that develops between first cousins Mary and Vincent. Coppola has trimmed some of that down here – a move that will no doubt raise a few eyebrows, as it seems to be a sign that a father is finally giving in and admitting he made a mistake by casting his daughter. But the Vincent-Mary romance is too integral to the main plot to be completely nixed, and so it lingers, stinking things up. There are also story beats that never ring true – like a redemptive arc between Michael and ex-wife Kay (Diane Keaton), or a minor plotline about Michael's son wanting to be a singer instead of a lawyer. Who cares?

But even these glaring problems can't completely capsize The Godfather, Coda. Coppola's direction is too sharp; too clever to be ignored. The way he draws parallels between the opera the family attends at the climax and events that come afterward is delicious. And the plot lines involving the Vatican Bank – which are based on conspiracy theories that swirled around the sudden death of Pope John Paul I – are the type of big, swing-for-the-fences storytelling that most filmmakers would be afraid to tackle these days. Coppola also stages several showstopping set-pieces, like when a gunman in a helicopter blows away an entire room of old mobsters gathering in Atlantic City, or when Vincent puts together a big, elaborate sting to take out rival gangster Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna, who outshines nearly half the cast here in his brief but memorable role). And of course, there's a big montage where all accounts are settled and everyone who got in Michael's way gets violently rubbed out (one guy gets stabbed in the neck with his own glasses, resulting in geysers of blood). It's undeniable: when Coppola gets going, he's unstoppable.

Anchoring all of this is Pacino, who gives a memorable turn as a very different Michael. If you watch all three films back-to-back – as I did recently – it's jarring to see how different a person Michael seems in each incarnation. He's out of his depth for most of The Godfather, he's ruthless and almost psychopathic in The Godfather Part II, and here, he's weary. You can feel the tiredness radiating off of Pacino as he shuffles around, hidden away behind dark sunglasses. He's mellowed in his old age, and all he wants is to put the past behind him. But he can't. Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in.

/Film rating: 8 out of 10