Second time's the charm: good sequels to lukewarm originals.
While I won't be seeing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen until June 22nd (IE - the first press screening in IMAX), I am oddly excited about the would-be summer box office champion. I say 'oddly' because I rather didn't care for the first picture. I didn't like the constantly campy comedy bits, I didn't like the cartoonish human characters, and I was shocked by the lack of robot-on-robot smack downs. The film lacked tension, menace, and regulated the transformers to almost comic relief sidekicks. Those reasons, aside from a few other token issues (for example, Shia Labeouf falls for Megan Fox purely because she's hot, then is outraged when he discovers that she has the gall to come from a lower-class, petty criminal household... and SHE has to apologize!) had me scratching my head in July, 2007 as the film seemed to win over not just audiences but quite a few major critics as well. But the previews seem to indicate that Michael Bay may have tinkered with some of these issues, with more epic action and a darker tone. So I'm feeling a little more optimistic than I probably should.
At the moment, I'm feeling like Charlie Brown as he prepares to kick a football. Just what are the chances that this inferior first film will produce a decent sequel that actually works where the original did not? While there are plenty of good or terrific first films that produced superior sequels, there aren't that many mediocre or underwhelming chapter ones that produced stellar or vastly improved second chapters. For one thing, usually if the first film is lousy, it won't make enough money to justify a sequel (although that's less of an issue in this quick-kill blockbuster age). However, there are a few worth noting. To wit...
Tomb Raider: Cradle of Life (2003)
The original Tomb Raider was a colossal bore and a complete waste of potential. As one of the few video game franchises that actually made sense as a film, the Angelina Jolie vehicle none the less featured a stunning lack of action and a complete absence of adventure. You had a weak villain, a convoluted storyline that existed mainly to cram Jolie's estranged father Jon Voight in the narrative, and a picture where the majority of the action scenes were comprised of Lara Croft emptying her twin handguns into robots, statues, and CGI monsters. While no masterpiece, Jan de Bont's would-be comeback vehicle was a marked improvement. For one thing, the story actually made just a touch more sense. Plus Jolie had far more chemistry with the male lead (Gerald Butler) than she did with the boring 'insert a dude' in the first film (played by, shockingly, Daniel Craig). Most importantly, the film was an actual action film. It had real chases, real fight scenes, and real shoot outs and stunt work with actual stuntmen being beaten, shot, and falling off cliffs. While the original was an example of everything wrong with tent pole film making, the sequel (which was actually $20 million cheaper to make) was a pleasant B-movie throwback that worked as a rough and tumble action adventure movie. Alas, its relative box office failure ($66 million vs. $132 million for the first Tomb Raider) led to what I call the 'Tomb Raider trap' rule, which states that a sequel to an unloved but successful film will bomb even if it's better, because audiences won't risk getting burned again.
Saw II (2004)
I was in the minority in that I rather loathed the first Saw picture. Aside from its grotesque moral compass ('oh no, he's actually helping people... and he's not really killing anyone'), the film was terribly acted, ridiculously plotted, and inanely staged. Just why was Dr. Gordon forced to listen as Amanda told her story of terror in the head cage? Because that scene was what got the film made, and it was the prime attraction of the marketing campaign, so they needed to stick it in there somehow, right? The whole film feels like an interesting first draft that never got polished after it was sold. Since one of the costars was one of the writers, you had the unique pleasure of watching a lousy writer/bad actor deliver his bad dialogue poorly. And Danny Glover delivers one of the worst performances of his career to boot (at least, unlike Shooter, you don't need hearing aids to understand him).
But Saw II? It's no great masterpiece and certainly not that scary, but it traded in wrongheaded morality plays and narrative incompetence for B-movie fun house jolts. It's violent and brutal, but not drawn out or grotesque. Plus, you have the wonderful interplay between two first rate character actors, as Tobin Bell faces off against Donnie Wahlberg. This second chapter allowed Tobin Bell to progress from twist-spilling cameo player (gee... that's noted screen menace Tobin Bell in the hospital bed... I wonder if he's involved somehow?) to full-fledged franchise movie star. And this is the only film that has explicitly called foul on Jigsaw's warped philosophy. It's good nasty fun that forgoes the pretentiousness of the later sequels and it's a far more polished, professional picture than the rough draft original in every way. Plus, it was the first date for my eventual wife/mother of my child, so it's got that going for it. Every year we celebrate the anniversary of our first meeting by seeing yet another Saw sequel and swearing each year that we'll find a better way to celebrate next year.
Addams Family Values (1993)
Despite opening to $24 million and staying above $20 million in weekend two way back in November 1991 (a second-weekend feat surpassed only by Batman, Home Alone, and Terminator 2 at the time), the original Addams Family film earned the scorn of critics and the passive acceptance of audiences (despite the two massive weekends, it quickly flamed out after Thanksgiving and ended with $113 million). While perfectly cast and gamely performed, the first picture and its 'fake Uncle Fester tries to con the family' plot did little to endear the franchise and the film just wasn't all that funny. But the sequel that followed just two years later was a genuine comedy classic. Everyone in the cast felt at home, Raul Julia and Angelica Houston were obviously having the time of their lives, and Christina Ricci was rewarded for her scene-stealing turn as Wednesday Adams in the first film by massively increased presence in the sequel (in terms of screen time, she's actually the star).
All this, plus the film contains not one warmed over suspense plot line, but three broadly comic storylines all mixed in, each of which would have sufficed on its own. Whether it's the birth of Pubert Addams and the older childrens' quest to murder said infant (priceless sight gags galore), the marriage of Uncle Fester to a would-be black widow (played by Joan Cusack, who is rarely allowed to be this attractive onscreen), or the brilliant gambit of sending Wednesday and Pugsley Addams to a cheerfully happy song-and-dance summer camp, this second picture is superior in every way and is one of the funnier mainstream entertainments of the 1990s. Alas, the lukewarm reception of the first film prevented this sequel from attaining similar box office heights, and it reached only $48 million in the US.
Scream 2 (1997)
The original Scream is not a bad movie, but it is a slightly overrated one. Yes, it's gamely acted and contains a knockout of a curtain raiser. But, once you get past the 'wink-wink, we're openly discussing the very cliches we're indulging in', it's a pretty generic 80-style slasher picture. But the sequel umped the ante in a number of ways. For one thing, the picture feels huge in scope, as if it's the first 'epic' slasher film. The cast feels more comfortable in their characters' skin, and they are all suffering from various forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which lends a gloom over the whole show. Leiv Shreiber gives a star-making performance, while the picture finds time for two completely appropriate musical interludes amidst the carnage (plus, David Warner is an upgrade from Henry Wrinkler). Most importantly, the violence in this one really stings, as Wes Craven boldly kills the most popular character in the series at the halfway point, and then allows the characters ample time to grieve his murder. If for no other reason than the scene where Dewey and Sydney try to determine who gets to call Randy's mother after he is killed, Scream 2 is a more potent piece of pop entertainment.
A few popular sequels that will not be on this list:
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) - Yes, this second film is better than the first, but I enjoy the maiden voyage more than most. While it's overlong and more of a tone poem, Star Trek: The Motion Picture is perhaps the only Star Trek picture that's actually about space exploration and discovering new worlds, as opposed to foiling evil villains and their evil plots.
Superman II (1981) - It's not a bad movie at all, but this critically overpraised sequel is still inferior to the grand myth making in Richard Donner's original picture. The climactic throw down with the Kryptonian super villains is still fun and there is still some drama in the fortress of solitude moments with Superman and his respective parent (his mother or his father, depending on which version you watch), but the film has never been as engaging as the epic gold standard of superhero origin stories. Neither film is perfect, and both have issues with villainy (Gene Hackman's Lex Luther is a little too campy, while General Zod and company are all bark and little bite due to the family friendly nature of the franchise), but the first Superman picture is still the very best one yet made.
Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me - The original film is one of the very best comedies of the 1990s. The sequel, despite popularity and critical raves, was one of the most heartbreaking theatrical experiences of my life. Mike Myers apparently didn't realize that Dr. Evil and Austin Powers were not inherently funny characters, but that the comedy emanated from fish out of water situations. By putting a swinging 60s bachelor back into the 1960s, Jay Roach and company took all of the satirical fun out of the film, and the constant poop and dick jokes were not enough to compensate. Plus a prologue plot twist took a giant dump on whatever emotional investment we placed in the original picture.
Spider-Man 2 (2004) - As confused as I was by the critical pass that Transformers received, I was flabbergasted by the critical orgasm that greeted this vastly overrated Spidey sequel. The film follows the idiot plot through and through (IE - most of Peter's problems would be solved in five minutes if he wasn't an idiot), and Alfred Molina's cartoonish Dr. Octopus can't touch the multi-layered performance of Willem Dafoe. Once Octavius becomes Doc Ock, all humanity and subtlety goes out the window until the very end. Like Superman II (to which it owes much of its plot), stellar action scenes allow the picture to escape narrative scrutiny. It fails for the same reason Superman Returns failed - it's 2+ hours of self pity because the girl who he cruelly and selfishly abandoned won't take him back.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian - While this under performing sequel corrects many of the flaws of the The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, it's still not a perfect film (it drags after an admittedly shocking third-act twist). Regardless, The first film wasn't that bad, and the sequel is good but not great.
Angels & Demons - Yes, it's a much more fun than The Da Vinci Code, but neither are 'good'. One is terrible and dull. One is terrible, but stupidly fun and entertaining. I'll take dumb over dull anytime.
And now, just so I don't leave anything out, a random smattering of terrific sequels to very good or terrific originals - The Bride of Frankenstein, The Road Warrior, X2: X-Men United, Batman Returns, The Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, Gremlins 2: The New Batch, The Bourne Supremacy, Toy Story 2, Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (it's OK, you can admit that the action scenes are astounding and the romantic subplot takes up only about 1/4 of the film), Terminator 2: Judgment Day, From Russia With Love, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Matrix Reloaded (sorry, it's true), and The Godfather part II (although I still prefer the original).
Any I missed or any you disagree with (I'm sure there are plenty of both)? Feel free to share.