Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: Despicable Me 3 protracts the adventures of a bad guy who we were encouraged to like for his badness, before he tried to turn good, and now we watch as his old life of villainy threatens to ruin everything he has achieved. You might say that just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.

I much admire Francis Ford Coppola's frankness. To be sure, he might be prone to pulling out half-assed excuses like "it's more like two films and an epilogue" or "we wanted to call it The Death of Michael Corleone to show that it wasn't, actually, a sequel", but he has admitted, multiple times & in public, that his motivation for making the 1990 film The Godfather, Part III was almost exclusively mercenary, not artistic. He'd spent almost ten years in director jail and he wanted out, and Paramount was willing to finance the shit out of a Godfather sequel. So a Godfather sequel it was to be.

The really sad part is that it didn't even actually get him out of director jail, unless you're ready to assume that what Coppola truly wanted in his heart of hearts was to make a John Grisham adaptation with his post-Godfather III freedom. So in addition to sort of pissing everybody off - this is surely among the most widely-disliked movies to receive seven Oscar nominations, including Best Picture - it was ultimately a waste of time and the audience's respect. Meanwhile, One from the Heart, the movie that put him in jail in the first place, putters around, waiting for its widespread rediscovery as one of the great American films of the 1980s.

That being said, I come to defend The Godfather, Part III, not bury it. "Defend", did I say? Well, I will at least pat it on the head and give it a cookie for trying. I do think it's incontestably true that the movie has received an unfair amount of at times very petty criticism for the unspeakable crime of being a worse film than The Godfather and The Godfather, Part II, two of the most highly-regarded American films ever made. The wonder is not that Part III doesn't live up to their standard; the wonder would be if it actually came close. The flipside to this, of course, is that Part III begs us with every fiber of its being - every strained reference in dialogue, every snippet of flashback footage, every note of Carmine Coppola's score that grabs cues from Nino Rota's original by the handful, every frame of Gordon Willis's exquisitely shadowy, browned-out cinematography (resulting in Willis's second and final Oscar nomination, and his first for a Godfather film, which is among the Academy's most notable crimes) - to remember how much we absolutely adored the first two movies. It does not invite comparison; it begs for comparison with unseemly, pathetic need. So we can perhaps not blame ourselves if that comparison does not flatter it even slightly.

Still, the film is better than the way it's sometimes treated, like something the cat hacked up on the new carpet. It has its charms, weird and loopy charms, so idiosyncratic that even though you just absolutely know that Coppola & Mario Puzo were writing this for the pure love of money, they couldn't help but put some genuine demented inspiration into it.

It also has some astonishingly self-evident problems, to be sure. The acting rarely rises above merely passable, for one thing, even from people who ought to have been capable of more: Al Pacino, returning to the role of Michael Corleone, where he once acieved one of the greatest performances in the history of the American cinema, looks as tired and "why the fuck are you bothering me?" as his character, almost single-handedly derailing the film's ostensible themes about Michael's final decline and fall through sheer ennui. Diane Keaton seems profoundly chagrined, if not by her willingness to appear in this cash-in despite how very crudely and inappropriately her character has been shoved into the plot, then certainly by the magnificently unfortunate frizzy hairdo she's been saddled with. Andy Garcia is at least passable in a role that requires little more than the ability to play the charismatic sociopath, but it's not a challenging part and he does all the obvious things with it.

Sofia Coppola... has gotten enough grief. It's not her fault that she was the closest warm female body of the right age when Winona Ryder fell through at the last minute, and there's only one scene where she's actually that bad. And certainly she is abysmally bad in that scene, professing her love for Garcia's character with a flat panic that suggests, rather than teenage ardor, the sudden awareness that the clams one had at lunch might have been a few days past their use-by date, and how quickly can we end this conversation without seeming rude? It seems clear enough to me, anyway, that Coppola was the most available stick to beat up the film with; reading some of the reviews from 1990 and onward, it seems distinctly like critics took to attack her for the movie's sins as a way of keeping from the live wire of saying that Francis Ford Coppola himself had forgotten how to make a Godfather movie (as though Francis wasn't responsible for casting and directing his own daughter).

The bigger problem, but also the source of nearly all of the film's appeal, comes from the deeply batty story Puzo and Coppola contrived. Even broadly recapping it would take almost as long as watching the film, but let us go at least this far: in 1979, 60-year-old Mafia don Michael Corleone (Pacino) has managed to get himself in good with the pope, and is about to receive the highly prestigious honor of admittance to the Order of St. Sebastian. For Michael, we learn, has devoted most of the 21 years since Part II (16 years had passed in real life) attempting to wash himself and his money clean of the blood he shed, particularly the blood of his very own brother, and has become a patron of several charities, most of which seem to be only marginally corrupt.

That gets us to the first scene, and one of those grandiose Italian Catholic ceremonies that Godfather films like to open with; after this, it becomes an impenetrable morass of personal and business crises, as Michael's legitimate real estate deal runs afoul of Vatican politics, as his comfortably resentful son Anthony (Franc D'Ambrosio) announces that he's going to become an opera singer, as the Corleone family's day-to-day manager Joey Zasa (Joe Mantegna) abuses his power and picks fights with the other families, as a plot to assassinate the Pope picks up steam, and as Michael's daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola) falls in love with her illegitimate first cousin, the ambitious, dangerous Vincent Mancini (Garcia). And through all of this, Michael's health is steadily failing, along with his sense of moral righteousness.

That really is about the level of distinction the film makes between all of those plotlines: in large part, it's a whirlwind of shit happening and if you can keep straight "everybody is aligned against Michael but Vincent, who is potentially more of a liability than an ally", that's pretty much the best you can hope for. But the part I really want to call attention to is "Vatican politics" and "assassinate the Pope", because that's what makes The Godfather, Part III a fascinatingly weird movie instead of just a misshapen blob that severely mismanages a nearly three-hour running time. It is absolutely confident that audiences will be captivated by the machinations of American Mafia operations in concert with the more venal worldly tendencies of the Catholic Church, and that, moreover, the audience cares a lot more about the situation of the Sicilian Mafia than the New York Mafia, anyway. It is, by a huge margin, the most fixedly Italian of the Godfather films, as opposed to Italian-American. Given that the first two movies are mostly noteworthy for presenting one of the most grand-scale studies of the U.S. immigrant experience, and the way that organised crime defines and shapes the limits of that experience, this full-on embrace of the Old World can only be regarded as wilfully perverse. But what the hell, it's a perversion I can get behind. There are a lot of U.S. immigrant stories, after all. But there is only one story, that I am aware of, that attempts to incorporate the suspicious death of John Paul I and the 1982 Banco Ambrosiano scandal as semi-metaphorical extensions of an old mafioso's wearying sense that he is a bad man who has nothing left to do but grow tired and then die.

Anyway, whatever the film lacks in narrative clarity or the looming sense of mythological weight, it makes up for in smaller areas. It's a gorgeous thing, to begin with, between Willis fantastically revisiting and revising his own cinematography from 1972 and 1974, with the better film stock of the late 1980s, and the luscious Sicilian towns and landscapes that dominate the last hour of the film. And Coppola seems to have been energised by the sense of impending doom and the inevitability of past sins coming home to roost, given the way he blocks the movie to feel so very oppressive - especially consider the way he blocks his sister, Talia Shire, giving what is by light years the film's best performance as Michael's sister Connie. She's like a matronly Angel of Death, fitting by doorways and into the back of shots, always hovering, never actually drawing attention, and between the staging and Shire's staring expressions, Connie turns into quite the splendid figure of menace, at that.

And no doubt, there's a lot of shit here. There's a lot of really clumsy dialogue, including one hell of a lumpy speech given to Keaton's Kay (though not as lumpy as her "just like our marriage is an abortion!" rant from Part II) that includes the amazingly literal observation "now that you're so respectable I think you're more dangerous than you ever were. In fact, I preferred you when you were just a common Mafia hood", a statement that Keaton doesn't even try to salvage in her delivery. The film never manages to use footage from the first two movies without it feel crass and lazy, especially, and most fatally, near its tragic climax (the film's finale is an amazing mixed bag. On the one hand, a panoply of ritualistic violence cross-cutting with the opera Cavalleria rusticana - an overt copy of the end of Part I, but effective. On the other hand, this is followed by a shocking death filmed in the corniest way imaginable, with Pacino doing a big, soundless "NOOOOOOOOO" scream that would make Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith feel embarrassed for the actor's dignity. And not to mention, those godawful flashbacks). It includes 1990's second "the guy stands behind the woman and helps her mold something by guiding her hands" scene, and by far its least effective; Garcia and Sofia Coppola rolling gnocchi hasn't one-twentieth of the erotic charge of Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore at the pottery wheel in Ghost, and while I can't say that the movie was aiming for that, it's a stupid scene.

So did the world need The Godfather, Part III? Hell no, of course not. Would it have been better off without The Godfather, Part III? Well, not "better off", but also no "worse off" than if it had never been made. The film adds nothing to the legacy of Part I and Part II, and feels so tonally different, with such a different vibe of acting - Willis really is the solitary human who seems invested in bridging the gap between the first two movies and third (and Carmine Coppola, I suppose, but in a more cynical way) - that it's really just easier to think of this as some weird spurious thing that has no real connection to the earlier films. And as a standalone film about the Mafia getting all mixed up in Church business, all to help a miserable old son of a bitch feel better about his past sins, it's at least it's own warped thing, an incoherent political epic that doesn't feel like a whole lot else, for better and for worse.

Reviews in this series
The Godfather (Coppola, 1972)
The Godfather, Part II (Coppola, 1974)
The Godfather, Part III (Coppola, 1990)