When last we saw fictional corporate raider Gordon Gekko in 1987, he was getting arrested for exactly the sort of financial shenanigans that landed real-life 1980s crooks like Michael Milken in jail. Now, 23 years later, the protagonist of Wall Street is back in the unexpected Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps. Oliver Stone, director of both films, undoubtedly hopes that public awareness of modern financial-sector crooks like Bernie Madoff will stimulate curiosity about what happens to Gekko when he’s released from jail into the current turbulent environment. This synchronicity between current events and subject matter makes Wall Street 2 seem extremely relevant, which is great news for Stone and Michael Douglas, the actor reprising his Oscar-winning role as Gekko.
Generally speaking, most Hollywood types aren’t so lucky when they revisit stories left hanging for a decade or more. Sequels are a tricky business no matter the circumstances, because follow-ups are by definition less fresh than originals-so even sequels that outperform their predecessors at the box office are usually considered inferior, artistically speaking. To date, only five direct sequels (contiguous storyline, same creative team) have been nominated for Oscars as Best Picture, and only two have won-The Godfather, Part II (1974) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).
If one needs a cautionary tale about the dangers of waiting too long to continue a beloved storyline, one need only recall that The Godfather, Part III (1990), which was released 16 years after the previous installment, is the only film in the trilogy that failed to win a Best Picture Oscar. In almost every conceivable way, The Godfather, Part III represents what can go wrong when a long-dormant franchise is restarted: Francis Ford Coppola’s writing and direction are an autopilot compared to the relentless brilliance of his work on the previous installments; Al Pacino’s frequently shouted performance is a marked contrast to the subtlety of his work in the first two pictures; and so on. It says a lot that the most enduring thing about the picture is a catchphrase made quotable by Pacino’s overwrought delivery: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” The lesson of The Godfather, Part III is simple and clear: If you made a good movie, or better still two good movies, quit while you’re ahead.
The best opposing example-a sequel that emerged after a long hiatus and then reaped critical and financial rewards-is probably The Color of Money (1986), a follow-up to The Hustler (1961), released 25 years previous. Continuity between the pictures is provided by star Paul Newman, who plays billiards ace “Fast” Eddie Felson, and novelist Walter Tevis, who provided the source material for both films. The sequel earned Newman his only competitive Oscar, and gave the actor an unusual opportunity to elaborate upon an iconic performance. From a critical perspective, it’s fascinating to note that the earlier picture (directed by Robert Rossen) is meditative even though it’s about a hot-tempered youth, and that the later picture (directed by Martin Scorsese) is adrenalized even though it’s about a middle-aged character. Furthermore, The Color of Money makes sense in isolation-it works wonderfully as a complement to The Hustler but is just as potent for viewers who didn’t see Felson’s first adventure.
Sadly, most sequels that emerge after long gaps fall into the Godfather, Part III trap of trying to recapture lost magic and failing, often miserably. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) made Anthony Perkins a household name because of his performance as homicidal hotelier Norman Bates, but the unnecessary Psycho II (1983) made Perkins seem ungallant, cashing in on a Hitchcock classic just three years after the “Master of Suspense” died-and 23 long years after the original picture’s release. Director John Landis perfected car-crashing comedic chaos with The Blues Brothers (1980), but surviving costar Dan Aykroyd all but danced on John Belushi’s grave by recruiting another heavyset performer, John Goodman, to slap on Belushi’s black suit and shades for the reviled Blues Brothers 2000 (1998), which arrived 18 years after its predecessor.
Sometimes the parties responsible for overdue sequels have good intentions, but all for naught. Director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell conjured B-movie magic with Escape from New York (1981), then fell flat with the big-budget Escape from L.A. (1996). Whereas the first picture was a canny riff on a grim period in Manhattan’s history, the sequel was a campy entry into the overcrowded milieu of post-apocalyptic action pictures. Similarly, even though Get Shorty (1995) provided knowing satire about the film business via novelist Elmore Leonard, director Barry Sonnenfeld, and star John Travolta, the same trio fizzled when targeting the music business in Be Cool (2005). These two sequels are especially embarrassing because all concerned seemed intent on making worthy follow-ups to well-liked originals.
And then, of course, there are long-overdue sequels that stink of pure greed. Sharon Stone’s naked ambition turned her into a movie star with Basic Instinct (1992), but after years acting in flops, Basic Instinct 2 (2006) was a desperate-and unsuccessful-attempt to sustain her above-the-title status. To her credit, Stone worked hard for her reported $13 million paycheck, baring a physique impressive enough to make actresses half her age envious.
To date, the ultimate cynical paycheck sequel is probably the awful Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull (2008), which oozed into theaters 19 years after Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). Inexplicably, bad reviews didn’t deter fans from turning Crystal Skull into a megahit, even though Harrison Ford seemed a lot less credible back in his fedora than Stone did back in her birthday suit.
A whole strata of overdue sequels includes movies that are watchable-except when compared to their predecessors. The Two Jakes (1990) is a convoluted mystery that features intriguing performances by Jack Nicholson (who also directed), Harvey Keitel, and Meg Tilly, but it’s positively amateurish when stacked against Chinatown (1974), the perverse political mystery that preceded it by 16 years. Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003) is a solid sci-fi action picture-the graveyard shootout, for instance, is quite memorable-but it lacks the passion of the James Cameron-helmed second installment, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), which ruled the box office 12 years before unlucky helmer Jonathan Mostow was hired to walk in Cameron’s footsteps. On the flip side, it only seems sporting to cut prolific actor-director Sylvester Stallone slack for Rocky Balboa (2006) and Rambo (2008), which followed Rocky V (1990) and Rambo III (1988) by, respectively 16 and 20 years. Rocky Balboa is exactly as well-made and exactly as pointless as Rocky V, and Rambo III was so awful that anything that followed would have been an improvement.
Arguably the most frustrating overdue sequels are those in which key personnel are absent. The Guns of Navarone (1961) is a silly but exciting World War II thriller with Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Anthony Quinn, but Force 10 from Navarone (1978) is an enervated follow-up replacing the original stars with the thoroughly bored quartet of Robert Shaw, Harrison Ford, Edward Fox, and Carl Weathers. The Sting (1973), with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, is one of the most entertaining movies ever made, but The Sting II (1983), with Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis, is not. Jodie Foster starring opposite Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs (1991) led to an Oscar-winning classic; Julianne Moore playing the same role opposite Hopkins ten years later led to Hannibal (2001), a critical disappointment.
Possibly the most disastrous attempt at recasting key roles for a sequel involves two films that I believe represent the longest-ever gap between an original and a follow-up. The Wizard of Oz (1939) starred Hollywood legend Judy Garland as Dorothy Gale, the little girl who realizes she isn’t in Kansas anymore. But the makers of Return to Oz (1985), an infamous flop released almost fifty years later, obviously had no choice but to recast-except, perhaps, the choice to avoid making the picture altogether, which would have been the wiser course. Return to Oz is a dark, strange, and interesting picture, but it’s preposterous to consider it a legitimate sequel to the MGM classic.
One final category of long-gestating sequels involves a very specific niche-continuing love stories that filmmakers revisit over time. The precedent in this area was set by French filmmaker Claude Lelouche, who complemented his elegant romance A Man and a Woman (1966) with the self-explanatory A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later (1986), reteaming original stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Anouk Aimée. Peter Bogdanovich tried to pull off the same trick, after a fashion, with Texasville (1990), a continuation of The Last Picture Show (1971) that reteamed, among others, onscreen lovers Jeff Bridges and Cybill Shepherd. Even with fresh source material by literary giant Larry McMurtry, on whose novels both pictures are based, Bogdanovich failed to capture lighting in a bottle twice. But that’s just what maverick Texas filmmaker Richard Linklater did with Before Sunrise (1995) and Before Sunset (2004), two exquisite films detailing the ongoing relationship of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy). A third Before seems not only inevitable but desirable, providing the exception to the rule.
Sequels being the lucrative commodity they are in Hollywood, viewers are about to get several more additions to the long and dubious history of follow-ups arriving many years after the originals. This Christmas sees the release of Tron: Legacy, 28 whopping years after the original Tron hit theaters. The web is filled with rumors about Ghostbusters 3, even though it’s already been 21 years since Ghostbusters 2. A new Austin Powers is apparently in the works, and it’s unlikely that could reach screens until at least a full decade after Austin Powers in Goldmember (2002). In brazen defiance of the film history that proves the folly of their ways, Hollywood decision-makers seem determined to revive anything that ever made money-no matter how thick a layer of dust has gathered on the film or franchise in question.