In what may be the greatest inverse of the “Italians playing Jewish” trope in cinematic history, James Caan as Sonny Corleone is, with no exaggeration, one of most incredible performances of all time. Forever in the shadow of his father Vito, Sonny takes his role as the eldest child with the utmost of seriousness, knowing he’s positioned to be the heir of the criminal empire (as long as Michael doesn’t get in the way, that is). He’s had to prove himself worthy for his entire life, which has manifested in an explosive personality, an aggressive demeanor, and an undeniable level of charisma. Caan was so immersed in the character that he improvised one of Sonny’s most famous scenes, and director Francis Ford Coppola loved it so much, it made the final cut.
Sonny means business, and isn’t afraid to do whatever it takes to get his point across. He’s an all-time great Wiseguy, with Caan even winning “Italian of the Year” twice in his lifetime, despite not actually being Italian. The Corleone family, despite their criminal background, is relatively chill, which allows Caan’s performance as Sonny to really shine, as he continually brings violence, death, and turmoil to the family’s door.