It took a certain amount of guts for Mario Puzo to revisit his own myth-creating Mafia territory in his 1996 novel The Last Don; it took slightly less guts for CBS to turn the book into a 1997 miniseries. After all, with the success of Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather films, any halfway decently made TV movie on the subject would probably draw viewers, and the quite decently made Last Don had an entertaining, if inevitably Marlon Brandoesque, performance by Danny Aiello at its center. The result: The Last Don was the top-rated miniseries of last year.
It took still fewer guts, therefore, for CBS to mount Mario Puzo’s The Last Don II, which you could fairly call the sequel to a rip-off. In this two-night mini, Danny Aiello as the penultimate don (we’ll get to that later) dies of old age within the first 20 minutes — the longest shot we see of Aiello is in a coffin. (Perhaps the poor devil is just napping after having to run around Manhattan shooting Dellaventura, the dead-and-gone detective series with which CBS rewarded him after the first Don‘s success.)
But, steadily diluted guts notwithstanding, The Last Don II is not without its pleasures. Novelist Puzo is nowhere to be found — executive producer Joyce Eliason wrote the script, which I suspect may be incomprehensible to anyone who hasn’t seen the first Last. But Eliason delivers much of the goods: lots of machine-gunning, some dandy piano-wire garroting, sentences like ”You’re gonna end up in cement shoes,” and, for requisite shock-camp value, a scene of Kirstie Alley making out with a Roman Catholic priest. In short, Eliason and director Graeme Clifford (Frances) have nothing to be ashamed of: They set out to make balderdash, and, by God, they’ve made entertaining balderdash.
The central figure of Don II is Jason Gedrick as Cross De Lena, the old don’s intelligent, civilized, but corrupted son. Gedrick is doing the TV version of what Al Pacino did in The Godfathers — that is, looking pained, but giving the orders to kill his rivals anyway, because, you know, it’s the family business. Gedrick has sense enough not to do an impersonation of Pacino — he’s his own man, strong and sexy but also wary, prematurely weary, and just a tad whiny.
In the first night of The Last Don II, Gedrick quickly loses his beloved wife, a movie star played in the first mini by Daryl Hannah, but here played by Moe Kelso. The cast change doesn’t matter, though, because this time around, the character exists only to open up a box with a bomb in it and then go boom. Fortunately for Gedrick, he must now find his daughter a live-in nanny, who turns out to be Patsy Kensit, the English sex bomb who has never quite exploded here but who still possesses the most sensual stiff upper lip in British pop history. Is Kensit to be trusted? Of course not — she’ll betray Gedrick, thus deepening his weariness.
Kirstie Alley’s role in Don II is more substantial than it was in Don I, but then, Kirstie Alley is more substantial now than she was during Don I. When, as the half-mad, my-son’s-been-killed Rose Marie, she lunges at the priest (Jason Isaacs) — seeking spiritual counsel that turns to animal lust — you expect your TV set to wobble back and forth slightly when the two hit the floor.
Plot? Don’t make me laugh. The Last Don II exists solely to present various Godfather-like tableaux of Italian family life and gangster battles, and to leave Gedrick standing. He becomes the second last don — i.e. (and I told you I’d get to this), literally, the Last Don II. In the words of Joe Mantegna (who starred and was killed in the first Don but here shows up in two seconds-long dreams that Gedrick has): ”It was a setup.”