Given that “The Godfather” now holds roughly the same cultural weight as Shakespeare, opera and Greek tragedy, there’s something bracingly pulpy about Electronic Arts’ down-and-dirty vidgame adaptation, which requires the player to commit multiple acts of bribery, extortion, racketeering, carjacking and casual brutality. Yet for all the pains EA has taken to re-create the iconic 1972 film in 3-D — appropriating the familiar strains of Nino Rota’s score and enticing Marlon Brando, James Caan and Robert Duvall to lend their voices to the enterprise — there’s no escaping the fact that it’s truer to the letter than the spirit of the movie.
As a rookie operative for the Corleone clan, the player must navigate a sparsely populated simulacrum of 1940s New York, applying polite pressure to the local businesses — negotiating with store owners, slamming their heads into their cash registers, that sort of thing — in hopes of rising through the ranks and gaining acceptance within Don Vito Corleone’s rarefied inner circle.
Along the way, one becomes involved with key moments from the movie to a surprising and at times ingenious degree, though always at an intriguing remove from the action.
So, when Don Corleone is gunned down near a fruit stand — note the boxy, pixilated oranges that tumble dramatically from his grasp — it’s the player’s job to get him to the hospital in time. And when Michael Corleone (looking and sounding nothing like Al Pacino, who opted not to participate) sets out to avenge the attempt on his father’s life, the player is entrusted with planting the pistol in the restroom, thus aiding and abetting one of the most memorable set pieces in movie history.
If only the same could be said for the sequences in the game, which, by comparison, are about as memorable as last week’s cannoli.
Would the approval and input of helmer Francis Ford Coppola have made any difference? The director, who had to be talked into doing the movie, found the game eminently refusable, even going so far as to label it “a misuse of film.”
One can make the argument that movies and videogames have entirely different aesthetic intentions, but Coppola does have a point.
It’s a tribute to the immortality of Brando’s Don Corleone that his raspy delivery, however endlessly mimicked and parodied, has yet to grow old; it’s hard to tell where his voice ends and the sound-alike’s begins (a good portion of the actor’s dialogue was deemed unusable because of his illness at the time of recording). And his face, with its endlessly expressive wrinkles and plump jowls, has been rendered in impressively vivid detail.
But a graphics engine, no matter how sophisticated, is still a poor substitute for flesh-and-blood actors, authentically bustling streets and back alleys, and the brooding, richly modulated tones of Gordon Willis’ cinematography.
Gamers are used to making these kinds of concessions. But when a project goes to such elaborate expense (the game’s $15 million-plus budget far outstrips that of the original film) to duplicate the real deal, the discrepancies become hard to ignore.
In one inspired touch, respect — the currency of the Godfather’s realm — is also the literal currency of the game, as players rack up “respect points” every time they successfully intimidate a fresh hoodlum or take over a gambling racket.
The objective in all this, incidentally, is to wipe out the rival families and become Gotham’s next big crime boss — a chain of events that was tinged with irony in the film, but here is offered up in a spirit of bald-faced celebration. The videogame has always been a willfully, even gleefully amoral medium, but when applied to “The Godfather,” one of the most clear-eyed movies ever made about violence and the American way, the results are instructive, to say the least.
Many directors and actors turned down the adaptation of Mario Puzo’s novel over concerns that it glorified the mob. They needn’t have worried. Coppola’s film is an epic tragedy about the price of corruption; the game, featuring some 20-odd hours of serviceable interactive bang-bang, ultimately makes the case that corruption is its own juicy but weightless reward.