By now it probably seems redundant to say so - after all, every national publication that covers movies has already said it: "The Godfather, Part III" is a good but not a great movie. Though certainly one of 1990's better films, it is seriously flawed and doesn't hold a candle to the two earlier "Godfather" movies, considered in most critical corners to be among the best, if not the best, films of the 1970s.
Still, Francis Ford Coppola, who again directed and co-scripted with Mario Puzo, has wrapped up the "Godfather" trilogy with a respectable, occasionally remarkable film that captures the texture and look, if not the heart and power, of the earlier films.That alone seems an accomplishment; let's remember that it's been 16 years since "The Godfather, Part II."
Probably the weakest link here is Coppola and Puzo's script, which has its superior elements, but in places falters rather badly. There are also a few technical glitches here and there, which can be excused because the film was rushed through post-production so it could open before year's end. But a weak central performance is not so easily excused, especially since it comes from the director's daughter.
And occasionally Coppola seems to be meandering. There are characters - chiefly Father Andrew Hagan (John Savage) and a sexy reporter (Bridget Fonda) - who seem to have been left largely on the cutting-room floor, and transitions, especially before the film's final moment, that could use some explaining.
The story picks up in 1979 as a 60ish Michael Corleone (played very well by 50ish Al Pacino), now resembling "King Lear," accepts a prestigious award from the Catholic Church . . . having also made a multimillion-dollar endowment for the poor of Sicily.
Michael is attempting to find some retribution in his life by forsaking his less legitimate enterprises - he's given up interests in Las Vegas gambling and has kept his father's promise that the "family" would avoid any drug trafficking.
And it won't be long before he has aligned himself with the church in an attempt to completely break from his gangster image, while gaining a foothold in the Vatican bank. But he will also discover that his past life can't be swept away without some residual effect.
Doing a surprisingly literal spin on the conspiracy rumors that surrounded the death of Pope John Paul I, the story wraps Michael up in new murder plots that build to a climactic series of killings intercut with his son's debut as an opera singer in Sicily.
It is these closing moments that give the film its weight, although it is also a heavy-handed way of acknowledging the entire movie's operatic tendencies. (And perhaps a too-obvious homage to the climax of the first "Godfather" film.)
While this story is unraveling, there is a subtext that counteracts Michael's attempts to break with his violent past. Just as his own son is rejecting the family business, his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia, in the film's best role), the illegitimate son of Michael's late brother Sonny (played in the first film by James Caan), comes into his life - as heir apparent.
But Vincent is a hot-head with violent tendencies . . . much like his father. And though Michael brings him in, he knows Vincent will be hard to control - especially when he begins a romance with Michael's daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola). They are first cousins, Michael reminds Vincent as he forbids the relationship.
Also on prominent display are Diane Keaton, returning as Michael's ex-wife, and Talia Shire, again playing Michael's sister Connie; Joe Mantegna is a slick, dapper and very dangerous hood to whom Michael turns over his business concerns; Eli Wallach is an aging rival hood; and George Hamilton is the family lawyer, replacing absent Robert Duvall.
Of the players, Pacino and Garcia fare best, both giving complex internal performances, as well as employing more obvious flamboyance. Mantegna is mesmerizing, boiling beneath the surface as an angry Mafioso. Shire is also quite good, which may come as a surprise to anyone who saw her histrionics in "Rocky V." And Wallach is having a great, if slightly hammy time.
Most of the others have little to do, but a lightweight, superficial George Hamiltion will make any fans of the other films yearn for a Robert Duvall to lend some depth as an advisor to Michael.
Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, isn't unwatchable as Mary, and she has relatively few scenes. But her character causes important repercussions in the lives of other, more prominent characters, and as such needed more spark than she is able to provide with her naturalistic but flat performance.
On the whole, however, this is director Coppola's show, and he makes it big, brooding and sometimes quite captivating - especially during that grand finale.
"Godfather" fans won't be too disappointed, and others will find it better than much of what's out there at the moment.
As a footnote, it should be said that although seeing the first two "Godfather" films before seeing this one isn't as necessary as it was to see "Chinatown" before "The Two Jakes" or "The Last Picture Show" before "Texasville," it certainly helps. And "Godfather"-philes will enjoy the many small references to events that occurred in the earlier movies.
"The Godfather, Part III" is rated R for violence, profanity, sex and a brief nude scene.