by Max Evry
Why do we crave sequels? Is it to revisit characters we fell in love with the first time around? To see a property improved upon by new talent? Before the "Godfather"'s and "Star Wars"' of this world, there was a time when sequels were frowned upon in Hollywood. Now they are the kneejerk reaction to nearly any film that makes bank, usually within two or three years of the original’s release. Sometimes, though, it takes a little longer…
Oliver Stone’s "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps" is part of a tradition of late sequels, in this case a whopping 23 years after the 1987 original, which won Michael Douglas an Oscar for his portrayal of financial shark Gordon Gekko and put Stone firmly on the map. It is a rare sequel which brings back both the original stars (including a hilarious Charlie Sheen cameo) and production team that made the first such a classic. It also introduces new characters, such as Shia LaBeouf’s eager protégé and Josh Brolin’s ruthless corporate raider.
Pulling old franchises out of mothballs and throwing them back in the multiplex is starting to become a habit with studios, and with the looming release of the "Wall Street" sequel we take a look back at some of the best and worst late sequels, ponder what went right and wrong, and peer into the future where some of our long-cherished series' will be back on the big screen.
What keeps a series alive and relevant in the public consciousness during a lengthy hiatus between installments? What keeps an audience hungry for more? These are some proven brands that continued to deliver the goods.
The Gang’s All Here
Many people thought Francis Ford Coppola could never recapture the magic that made the first "Godfather" a runaway success in 1972. Coppola himself was hesitant, requesting that promising young filmmaker Martin Scorsese helm the sequel, but eventually he came around and made what many consider an equal in "The Godfather: Part II." Once the '80s hit, Coppola fell hard from his early triumphs and suffered a nearly decade-long losing-streak at the box office until he reluctantly dipped back into the well for "The Godfather: Part III" (15 years after the last sequel).
Impressively re-assembling almost the entire surviving cast from the first two, and again penning the screenplay with author Mario Puzo, Coppola tried to redeem gangster Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) by making him go legit. Of course the attempt fails and he gets pulled back in to a web of corruption and murder. Though the film fell short critically, particularly against the casting of Coppola’s daughter Sofia, it still managed to nab a Best Picture nomination and revitalized the director’s career. Aside from great bombastic performances by Pacino and Andy Garcia, as well as a rooftop shootout that ranks as one of the highlights of the trilogy, the film grossed $137 million dollars worldwide.
Coppola’s friend Steven Spielberg experienced a similar fan outcry on "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (19yrs), in which he, Harrison Ford and George Lucas brought back possibly the most famous adventure hero in the world for one more go-round. Despite complaints of silly gophers, monkey swinging and criticisms of 66-year-old Ford's performance, the film grossed nearly $800 million worldwide, and became Spielberg’s highest domestic grosser since "Jurassic Park." Clearly if ever a series was critically bulletproof, it was Indiana Jones.
This year saw the release of "Toy Story 3" (11yrs), which was tied up in the lengthy negotiations between Disney and Pixar before the two companies merged, and actually began production without Pixar for a time. Once creator John Lasseter took control of the property again, he scrapped the Disney version and brought on director Lee Unkrich, who edited the first movie and co-directed "Toy Story 2." After enjoying some of the best reviews of the year, the film became the first Pixar feature to gross over a billion dollars worldwide, making it the most successful late sequel of all time.
In all three of these cases the original talent both in front of and behind the camera returned, which, despite the aging of the cast (not a problem with animation), created an instant comfort-level with audiences that they were once again in the right hands.
The Star is the Star
Though Scorsese never did helm that "Godfather" movie, he did get to take a crack at another beloved classic, Robert Rossen’s 1961 pool shark flick "The Hustler." For "The Color of Money" (25yrs), Paul Newman returned as “Fast Eddie” Felson, and as in the new "Wall Street," the iconic star was paired with a hot newcomer, in this case Tom Cruise. Returning to Fast Eddie earned Newman a long-awaited Academy Award for Best Actor, and the film became Scorsese’s highest grossing effort to that point. It proved that if a performer is recognized enough with a character, as long as the team behind the film is good, it doesn’t matter if the filmmakers return or not.
Sylvester Stallone has been able to resurrect his franchises with a Christ-like tenacity. In 2006 "Rocky Balboa" (16yrs) followed on the heels of what many consider the nadir of the series, 1990’s "Rocky V," a folly originally designed to kill the Italian Stallion before producers got cold feet and left the heroic boxer alive, thus disappointing those wanting closure on an already waning series.
Absent of John G. Avildsen, who directed the original and the fifth film, Stallone crafted a fitting coda to the series that used his age to the advantage. Stallone pulled the stunt again on 2008’s "Rambo" (20yrs), the first in the bloody series Sly helmed himself. In either case it was Stallone who carried both these characters to box-office redemption.
Other instances of the original star coming back without the original director or co-stars include Anthony Hopkins in "Hannibal" (10yrs), Bruce Willis in "Live Free or Die Hard" (12yrs), and Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines" (12yrs). The latter made over $400 mil worldwide, enough to warrant a 4th entry, "Terminator Salvation." While none of these sequels are considered in any segment of the population as being to equal the originals, it is remarkable that all the stars were well past their 50s yet still identifiable with the characters that brought them worldwide fame.
Does desire for a sequel wane after more than a decade in mothballs, or do certain films not warrant a sequel in the first place? Where does it all go wrong? Studios rely on sequels to build on the goodwill an audience has towards the characters and storytelling of the filmmaker, so what can make a seemingly well-oiled machine misfire?
The Gang’s Still All Here
The original "Escape From New York" was a quirky, satirical sci-fi action flick centered around Kurt Russell’s performance as grizzled anti-hero Snake Plissken. The premise -- Plissken must rescue the president from a future NYC, now a prison colony -- was simple, and made for an effective B-movie that became a cult classic and solidified Russell and director John Carpenter’s partnership. 15 years later when the two got back together to make a bloated, big-budget carbon copy titled "Escape From L.A.," they disappointed fans by repeating themselves without adding any substance. Despite the expense they also wound up alienating mass audiences who were largely unfamiliar with the cult status of the original.
The opposite problem plagued the sequel to the 1980 classic "The Blues Brothers." Despite several splashy new song-and-dance pieces, "Blues Brothers 2000" (18yrs) was hobbled not only by the absence of long-deceased John Belushi, but also a far leaner budget and a studio-imposed PG-13 rating which dulled the edge of the humor. Add a kid sidekick to the mix, and Jim Belushi having to bail due to schedule conflicts, and you have a recipe for disaster, regardless of the intentions of original writer/star Dan Aykroyd and original writer/director John Landis.
In both these cases the films failed to earn back half their budgets, and are generally viewed as regrettable footnotes to the fondly remembered forerunners. Whether you have more or less money, or are bringing back all the players, some movies are best left alone.
When Talent Returns But Directors Don’t
The absence of original writer/director James L. Brooks kept the sequel to Best-Picture winner "Terms of Endearment" from achieving the same deft balance of comedy and drama. "The Evening Star" (13yrs) was doomed to pass through the night sky unnoticed.
After years of development with original writer Robert Towne, star (now director) Jack Nicholson, and producer Robert Evans, "Chinatown" did not get a worthy successor in The Two Jakes (16yrs). Original director Roman Polanski had long since fled the country and was unable to helm, but it was sheer hubris to forget that it was Polanski, not Towne, who insisted on "Chinatown"’s devastating Greek tragedy ending. While "Jakes" has moments of grace, it shambles along as a mere neo-noir shadow of its predecessor.
Whoever thought "Basic Instinct 2" was still ripe for sequelizing over a decade after we’d already seen all Sharon Stone had to offer (and then some) clearly got what they deserved when this expensive flop stunk up theaters 14-years after the first one bowed. As if the thought of a now-middle-aged Stone gallivanting around naked wasn’t enough to turn people off, hellraising director Paul Verhoeven was nowhere to be found, and neither was a co-star with any screen charisma (sorry, David Morrissey). The film famously never even cracked $10 million in ticket sales, the only sequel to a massive grosser to fail so spectacularly.
The Gang’s All Gone
Stanley Kubrick’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" is often hailed as one of the great landmarks of motion picture history. The 16-years-late follow-up "2010" is an odd duck in that beyond the film’s signature spaceship and a brief cameo from Keir Dullea, there’s almost nothing stylistically or thematically to link this film to Kubrick’s masterpiece. It bears no resemblance in visuals, quality, cast, director, or even prescience, as the Soviet Union-heavy plot in the film’s future can attest to. It remains largely forgotten today.
"Superman Returns" was the first film in 19-years to feature the Man of Steel, 26 years if you account that it is technically a follow-up to 1980’s "Superman II." Although it follows their look and feel, it stayed far too reverent to the Richard Donner films, which were largely unknown to a generation and sullied by two further, inferior sequels. Though it tallied $390 million worldwide, it failed to deliver on its $270 million pricetag, and an embarrassment-adverse studio actually kept the film in theaters abnormally long in order for it to limp to $200 million stateside.
The idea of making a direct sequel to a decades-old film without any returning cast or crew is a fiasco not worth repeating. It’s also worth noting, briefly, that nobody will fall for the old “Son of” trick either, as the makers of "Son of the Pink Panther" (10yrs) and "Son of the Mask" (11yrs) learned.
So what have we learned from all this? We know that whether the story demands it or not, a studio, and sometimes the original creative participants, are not going to let go of a chance to further a franchise if they can help it. When a good career goes south it is a logical idea to dip back into the well to regain your popularity, but most of the time it seems like late sequels represent cynical commercial interests reluctant to take chances on new material, relying too much on brand nostalgia to carry a film to box-office glory and belly-flopping in the process.
Currently in the pipeline for future release are "Monsters Inc. 2," "Scream 4," "Men In Black III," "Beverly Hills Cop IV," "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "Ghostbusters 3." "Tron Legacy," which holds the late sequel record at arriving over 28 years after the original "Tron"'s 1982 bow, will arrive this Christmas with a wave of anticipation. What these new entries will learn from the past is uncertain, but you can rest assured that Sharon Stone will not be naked in any of them.