A sequel to any film, whether it follows a smaller movie, a mega blockbuster, or an instant classic, can be a daunting task to undertake for any director no matter how talented he or she may be. In the case of acclaimed director Francis Ford Coppola he was faced with one of the greatest sequel challenges of all, making a second chapter, in what would eventually become an epic trilogy, to the magnificent gangster ode, “The Godfather”.

“The Godfather Part 2” takes place a few years after the climactic ending to the mafia war, as Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) oversees all facets of the Corleone family business from their new home in Las Vegas. As Michael continues to lead the family in a similar fashion to that of his father, his vow to move the family into strictly legitimate business dealings is proving much more difficult than he had anticipated. With new enemies appearing in virtually every direction, and treachery around every corner, leaving no one above suspicion; Michael must do all he can to ensure his family’s legacy without losing everything he has worked so hard to attain. So the question is in whom do you trust when even those closest to you may have betrayed?

Here’s the astounding part about director Francis Ford Coppola’s achievement with his second installment in the “Godfather” saga; besides the fact that Francis returned as both co-writer and director for the sequel, a massive chore all its own, is the reality that his sequel may have actually managed to surpass the original movie, which is one of the most iconic films of American cinema. Francis and co-writer Mario Puzo (author of “The Godfather” novel and co-writer of all three films) did an amazing job of crafting yet another gripping gangland saga centered around the Corleone family, without really repeating anything they had done in the previous film; starting with the structure for this one’s storyline.

The first film’s story was very linear from start to finish, whereas in “The Godfather Part 2” the story takes place in two time periods. The primary story takes place within the present day as Michael runs the Corleone family operations, and struggles to maintain his power and keep his family together; the secondary storyline occurs via flashbacks that showcase Vito Corleone (played by Robert DeNiro) arriving in America and his subsequent rise to power within the underworld of organized crime. What I found most intriguing about the two separate storylines is how Francis edited the film together to make them run concurrently with each other, in essence providing the audience a comparison between father and son, and the differences in how they handled their business. An interesting side note is that the flashbacks of young Vito were a part of the novel (which is essentially the original film’s story); however, since these segments were not included in the previous film, Francis and Mario felt they would fit in nicely within the sequel to serve as a parallel between the two men and their families.

“The Godfather Part 2” also included some intriguing story elements that seemed to mirror events that had occurred in our nation’s fight against “La Cosa Nostra”, namely Joe Valachi’s admission to the congressional committee on organized crime that the mafia did indeed exist, and the inquisitions of mafia members that followed that event. The inclusion of the United States government’s investigation into organized crime within the movie’s storyline created an added depth and realism to the proceedings. While at the same time these moments within the film allows the audience to see just how twisted, dangerous and powerful Michael has become, and how far from his original plan of becoming legitimate he has gone in such a short time.

Many of the primary cast members for “The Godfather Part 2” were reprising their roles from the original film. Even though many members of the cast were playing characters that they no doubt had become reasonably familiar with; each actor or actress seemed to bring a fresh approach to their characters, almost as if they were portraying them for the first time. Thus serving as an example of just how different almost every single one of the returning characters had become since the conclusion of “The Godfather”.

Al Pacino and Diane Keaton continued to have great onscreen chemistry as Michael and Kay Corleone. Every one of their numerous verbal exchanges was charged full of emotion and intensity, never once disappointing for even an instant. I appreciated that the story for Kay continued to build upon the revelation she had at the end of the original film, where she realized what exactly Michael had become and just how much she had sacrificed to be with him. Seeing her continued struggle with herself and Michael just building to a crescendo over the course of this film was intriguing, and provided some of the most intensely dramatic moments within the series. I was impressed by the way Al Pacino took Michael into even darker, and at times frightening, areas of his character, to the point that the innocence he once had in the first film is all but destroyed by the darkness he has embraced for his life. “The Godfather Part 2” is the movie where Al Pacino truly began to shine as an actor (in my opinion), and where we as an audience began to see the incredible passion and drive that he brings to each of his performances first beginning to manifest.

Three other returning cast members were Robert Duvall, Talia Shire, and John Cazale; all three delivered solid performances, especially Robert and John, both of whom seemed to receive even more screen time than previously. Talia was strong during her moments on screen, although she wasn’t involved in this story as much as she was in the first one (which even then wasn’t a whole lot); yet her scenes still provided plenty of dramatic punch and she made the most of the time she was allotted. Robert Duvall once again gave a terrific performance as Tom Hagen, the one-time consigliere turned family lawyer. Throughout the mid-section of the film, Robert was given an opportunity to take Tom in a new, more powerful direction which he handled perfectly and even added a hint of menace to the character that surprised me. Lastly, John Cazale as middle brother Freddo benefited greatly from a beefed up story compared to his previous turn as the weak-willed sibling. John showed us in “The Godfather” that he was a good actor, but it wasn’t until this film that we were shown just how talented he really was. One scene in particular near the end of the movie provides John his moment to shine opposite Al Pacino, and in these few brief moments, John completely steals the scene away from Al with a devastatingly emotional performance.

One other cast member worthy of note would be Robert DeNiro as a young Vito Corleone. His scenes in the various flashbacks sprinkled throughout the film are superb. When watching his portrayal, with all the little nods to Brando’s performance, and the flashes of intensity and power, it’s not surprising that Robert won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for this role.

Achieving what I personally would have believed impossible at the time, “The Godfather Part 2” manages to at least equal its predecessor, and possibly even surpasses it in the end. With a gripping dramatic story that spans two generations, incredible performances, and an ending that will leave you stunned, “The Godfather Part 2” is as perfect a continuation of the story from the original film as anyone could have ever hoped for.

“The Godfather Part 2” is rated R for violence and language.