There’s something inherently odd about movie sequels. Works of art shouldn’t be continued by someone else like this; Noel Coward didn’t have to write Dorian Gray 2: Electric Boogaloo. The Rolling Stones didn’t record Sgt Pepper Strikes Back. But in cinema, we think nothing of having someone take over an artist’s creative vision and do something else with it. It’s all economics, of course, but it’s also one of the simple joys of pop culture seeing how someone else can take a story forward in ways never originally intended.
So here’s a look at how a few notable directors – some famous, some not – taking the baton from someone else and running with it.
James Cameron – Aliens, Rambo: First Blood Part II (writer)
James Cameron knows how to make sequels.
Aliens might just be the perfect part two. Alien is a straight horror movie which happens to be in space. It’s almost a slasher movie. Aliens takes this simple story and just makes it bigger. Instead of group of people stuck in one place being picked off one by one by a monster, it’s a bunch of soldiers versus loads of those monsters. It builds on the original, expands on its scope, gives us more of what we liked about the first one, but doesn’t just rehash it. It changes a story into a world.
Aliens is the only time Cameron truly directed a sequel to someone else’s film, but it’s not the only time he took this approach. Prior to making Aliens, he wrote the first draft of Rambo: First Blood Part II. Sylvester Stallone significantly re-wrote his screenplay, but the leap between sequels is noticeably similar.
First Blood is actually a rather small film, about an expertly trained soldier evading the police. Part II turns Rambo into an unstoppable superhero and sends him up against an army.
Of course, Cameron pulled the same trick when he made a continuation of his own work as well. The Terminator, again like Alien, is almost a horror film – the T-800 vaguely resembles a stalker-killer like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees. Terminator 2, on the other hand, is as big a blockbuster as you can get. So many sequels just send out the same characters in the same rehashed situations, hoping the recognisable name will churn a few more bucks.
The James Cameron approach is to make a different genre movie, just set in the same world as the original. Turn a taut thriller into an action spectacular. Turn a horror into a war movie. And make it loads bigger, obviously.
(Cameron is also the credited director of Piranha II: The Spawning, but was only upgraded from handling special effects when the original helmer left, and personally considers The Terminator his directorial debut, so we’ll let him off for not matching up to Joe Dante’s original on that one.)
Irvin Kershner – The Empire Strikes Back, RoboCop 2
Irvin Kershner is the opposite Cameron. Whereas Cameron drags the story and characters into wild new places, Kershner’s attitude is ‘if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.’
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Kershner made The Empire Strikes Back, probably the most beloved sequel of all time. Of course, he was working for a very hands-on executive producer. George Lucas’ talents do not lie in his shot composition or the performances he gets out of actors. His skill lies in his imagination, in creating characters and worlds that have inspired a generation. If only he had someone to do the pesky filmmaking itself for him.
Star Wars, when it is at its best, is not a series of films that have multiple levels or depth – and I mean that as a compliment. They are pure adventure of the highest calibre, and all Star Wars 2 need to succeed was more fun, more adventures and more new characters. Lucas delivered them in spades, and Kershner just had to put them together. He doesn’t mess with the formula at all, keeping all Lucas’ movie serial quirks like the opening crawl and wipe transitions.
It’s when taking over from a director with a unique, idiosyncratic style that Kershner becomes unstuck. RoboCop is a wildly different film from Star Wars. Star Wars was fresh and exciting with lots of wild, original characters. RoboCop, on the other hand, is a rather generic set-up (Iron Man + Judge Dredd), which is blasted into greatness by Paul Verhoeven’s crazily OTT and deeply satirical execution.
Stripped of Verhoeven’s input, Kershner’s RoboCop 2 basically becomes the sort of film the first instalment was parodying. The violence is garish, everything is played straight and it just starts to miss the point. There is some spirit of the original in there – the scenes of the RoboCop 2 prototypes killing themselves as soon as they are created is great, the peewee baseball team robbing the TV store is fun, and the idea of having an actual kid as a proper bad guy is still rather daring. It’s a pretty good action movie, but when you’re making a follow-up to one of the smartest movies of the 80s, that isn’t really enough.
Renny Harlin – A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, Die Hard 2, Exorcist: The Beginning
Renny Harlin’s name deserves to be on any list of solid 80s and 90s studio action directors (along with John McTiernan, George P Cosmatos, Andrew Davis and Russell Mulcahy), but it’s interesting how little he brings to the sequels he’s been involved in.
A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: The Dream Master was Harlin’s first big studio film after making a name for himself in Finland. The film was certainly a success – up until Freddy Vs Jason it was the biggest Elm Street film at the box office, and it’s by no means an awful one, but compared to the previous instalment (Dream Warriors), it’s not particularly remarkable. By 1991, the slasher cycle was entering a hibernation period it wouldn’t be roused from until Scream, and Elm Street 4 did little to stop the slumber. To be honest, it’s probably most remembered now for the Fat Boys theme song.
After helming the ill-fated Andrew Dice Clay vehicle The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane, Harlin ended up on another sequel, this time the follow up to what is officially the greatest action film ever made, and the best American movie of the 80s. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Die Hard 2 – it’s just Die Hard in an airport really – but it sorely lacks the tightness and spark of the original.
Instead of the tightly constructed geography of the Nakatomi Plaza, it’s just a bunch of shoot-outs and explosions around an airport. It’s okay, but it’s just not even as good as the best Die Hard rip-offs like Under Siege or Sudden Death (if you ever wondered what Die Hard With A Vengeance directed by Renny Harlin would be like, check out the surprisingly good 12 Rounds, starring WWE Champion John Cena).
Harlin’s last (to date) attempt to work with someone else’s playthings came with Exorcist: The Beginning. Brought on when the studio weren’t happy with original director Paul Schrader’s take (eventually released as Dominion: Prequel To The Exorcist), Harlin reshot virtually the whole thing, but to no avail. The project was doomed from the beginning, and both versions were met with an indifferent shrug.
Geoff Murphy – Young Guns II, Under Siege 2: Dark Territory, Fortress 2, xXx: State Of The Union (2nd unit director)
Unlike Renny Harlin, New Zealander Geoff Murphy probably isn’t a director you’ve heard of, but as a journeyman who’s worked consistently for 30 years, he’s helmed a few memorable part twos, and makes an interesting comparison to the better-known names on this list. None of the films he’s produced sequels for are particularly iconic (though I’d definitely go to bat for Under Siege if it came down to it), so that means he didn’t have to face the wrath of fanboys or worry about destroying cherished memories. Still, he’s made entertaining follow-ups to all of them.
Young Guns II doesn’t really mess with the formula – it’s just another brat pack Western – but it’s just as fun as the first one, and it gave us Bon Jovi’s Blaze Of Glory, which has got to be a good thing, right? Under Siege was essentially just Die Hard with Steven Segal on a boat – the sequel makes it Die Hard with Steven Segal on a train, and it does exactly what it says on the tin. It has a noticeably lower budget and some iffy CGI, but it does have one of the best one-liners ever developed by an action hero (“Tits to die for”).
Nobody is going to argue Fortress 2: Re-Entry is a masterpiece, but if you can’t get on board with a sequel that upgrades its premise from ‘Christopher Lambert in a futuristic prison’ to ‘Christopher Lambert in a futuristic prison IN SPACE’, then I worry about your ability to enjoy cinema in general.
I’m not going to try to apply auteur theory to Murphy’s sequels or anything. The best directors on this list find new dimensions in the original material they have to work with and break new ground. Murphy doesn’t do that – but he’s made three enjoyable pieces of entertainment nonetheless.
Richard Lester – Superman II & Superman III
The accepted thinking is that Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie is an American classic, and that when he was booted off the sequels his replacement Richard Lester ruined the series. The first film was originally conceived as an epic two part adventure (hence why Terence Stamp’s General Zod turns up at the beginning of part one), but budgets and scheduling delays led to Donner concentrating on finishing the first film before completing all the sequel’s scenes.
By this point, Donner had fallen out with producers Alexander and Ilya Salkind, and they’d replaced him with Lester, who totally changed Donner’s original vision (Lester had recently had a big hit for the Salkinds with The Three Musketeers, on which they realised they’d shot enough footage for two films – kind of the opposite of what happened with Superman…)
There’s another way of looking at it, though. Donner is a classical Hollywood director – he made mainstream hits like Lethal Weapon, The Goonies and The Omen, which, beloved as those films are, are all rather conservative and not particularly adventurous in their filmmaking. Richard Lester, on the other hand, was originally a vibrant, surreal pop-art filmmaker. He’s best known for making The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night – still the best pop-music film ever made – and the Fab Four’s even crazier follow-up, Help!
Following the success of those two, he produced a string of British films capturing the spirit of the swinging 60s: The Knack …and How To Get It, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes; How I Won The War, starring John Lennon and Michael Crawford; and The Bed-Sitting Room, a recently rediscovered absurdist post-apocalyptic comedy starring Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Spike Milligan.
Following Donner’s dignified reverence, it’s easy why fans didn’t take to Lester’s approach. Superman II, despite being a Frankenstein of a film (Margot Kidder’s hair changes from shot to shot), hangs together surprisingly well. Superman III, however, is a massive departure – it goes full-Lester, going from the relatively grounded world that Donner created, to a completely pop-art cartoon. Taken on that level, the film is a hell of a lot of fun. The individual set pieces are great – the videogame scene, bad Supes messing with the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and in the opening titles, a wonderful extended exercise in slapstick and visual comedy. It’s definitely a departure from the epic grandeur of the first film, but Lester was a pop artist and it’s great to see him work with four-colour characters.
We’re not going to try and defend Superman IV: The Quest For Peace though.
Justin Lin – The Fast And The Furious: Tokyo Drift, Fast & Furious, Fast Five
It’s strange to think that less than a decade ago The Fast And The Furious series looked like it was on its last legs. The third instalment, Tokyo Drift, basically felt like a DTV sequel that somehow snuck into cinemas – it contained none of the original cast (bar a surprise cameo), featured a different setting, a storyline that doesn’t have anything to do with the first two… But somehow Justin Lin took the series and ran with it, eventually making it Universal’s biggest cash-cow.
Ironically, 2 Fast 2 Furious actually had a (seemingly) far more interesting director at the helm, with Boyz N The Hood’s John Singleton replacing journeyman Rob Cohen. But it was Lin who made the franchise his own (Singleton has seemingly disappeared into anonymity himself, and was last seen trying to make Taylor Lautner an action star in Abduction).
What Lin did with series is, in retrospect, a minor miracle. We’ve reached a point with tentpole movies where studios seem to have no faith unless they are based on existing, well-known properties – look at the perceived failures of Edge Of Tomorrow this year, or Pacific Rim the year before. Lin made the Fast And The Furious films about the only major franchise that doesn’t come with the baggage of a long running comic series or whatever.
Also, being faithful to source material that was written 50 years ago also often leads to having a team identical white males, just because attitudes were different back then. Lin’s Fast movies really feel like products of the 21st century – the regular cast includes Samoan wrestlers, females MMA fighters, Israeli models and Korean drift racers. They are set all over the world and have soundtracks to match.
In a climate that seems to stick with conservative attitudes and favours in-jokes and franchise-building over fun, Lin has managed to make a series of really enjoyable and unpretentious blockbusters which are surprisingly progressive, and that’s something to be applauded.
Isaac Florentine – Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, Undisputed III: Redemption
You probably don’t remember Undisputed. Despite being directed by Walter Hill (The Warriors, The Driver, 48 Hours) and starring Ving Rhames and Wesley Snipes, the 2002 prison boxing film barely registered on its theatrical run. It seems an odd choice to even bother to make a straight to DVD sequel to it. But Israeli martial artist turned director Isaac Florentine, who cut his teeth directing episodes of Power Rangers, somehow turned the series into some of the best American hand to hand combat films of the century. Yes, really.
The sequel spins the focus onto the bad guy from the first one, disgraced and imprisoned heavyweight champion George ’Iceman’ Chambers (Snipes). This was 2006, when Wesley Snipes thought he was still above DTV movies, so he’s replaced by a post-Spawn, pre-Black Dynamite Michael Jai White. White is one of this generation’s most incredible screen martial artists (check out his deleted scene from Kill Bill Vol 2 if you need convincing). Iceman is basically just a Mike Tyson analogue, and White made his name playing Tyson in an HBO TV Movie, so the casting is sublime.
The film starts out almost as a riff on Lost On Translation, with Iceman out of prison and desperate for cash, filming cheesy vodka adverts in Moscow. He’s quickly arrested and put in a modern day gulag, and it’s all revealed to be part of an elaborate scheme by Russian gangsters to have him face off against their prison fighting champion Yuri Boyka (played by the incredible British action star Scott Adkins), and make a killing off the gambling.
The third instalment follows the ‘make the bad guy the lead’ formula, having Adkins’ Boyka shipped off what’s basically a ‘world cup’ of prison fighting, and facing off against Chilean kickboxer Marko Zaror (Mirageman, Kiltro) in his English-language debut.
Florentine is a revelation for action cinema in the era of Michael Bay and Zack Snyder’s frantic cutting and CGI overload. White, Adkins and Zaror are all fantastic screen fighters, and Florentine just lets the camera sit back while they fight. There are long takes and clear shot composition, letting the actor’s physical prowess speak for itself – and some of the results are jaw-dropping. The non-fight scenes might be a bit prosaic and uninspired, but we’re only here for the fights and they certainly deliver.
John Hyams – Universal Soldier: Regeneration, Universal Soldier: Day Of Reckoning
Universal Soldier is a fondly remembered early 90s action film, but it didn’t really spin a mythology or a franchise in the way, say, Terminator or Predator did.
Original director Roland Emmerich didn’t return to the characters, instead deciding to spend the rest of his career destroying iconic landmarks for a living. Production company Carolco went bust in 1996, and the rights ended up being picked by a Canadian cable network, which knocked out two straight to TV sequels which nobody ever saw. In 1999 Universal Soldier: The Return, a proper theatrical sequel, was released, with Jean Claude Van Damme returning alongside Michael Jai White and WCW wrestler Goldberg. But it was a box office bomb, and it looked like the series was dead.
The idea of Van Damme and Dolph Lungren returning for a DTV Universal Soldier sequel in 2009 seemed like a cruel joke, an Alan Partridge-style punch line ridiculing how far they had fallen. First-time director John Hyams didn’t see it like that. He had pedigree – his dad Peter directed JCVD in Timecop and Sudden Death – and grasped the opportunity. He shot the best action scenes of Van Damme’s career: thrilling single raids through atmospheric Bulgarian industrial ruins. He took advantage of Van Damme’s now-haggard face. He perfectly captures the world-weary expression of a soldier who’s had his humanity ripped from him.
But Hyams wasn’t done there. Regeneration was still just an action film – Day Of Reckoning, his second take on the UniSol mythology, was a paranoid sci-fi that owed more to Gaspar Noe and Philip K Dick than Roland Emmerich. Scott Adkins took over the lead, with Van Damme and Lungren in supporting roles, almost spectres of the terrible fate that will befall Adkins. The film has a complicated, bleak plot about clones and the nature of identify and existence, and what we can probably call the most thought-provoking ending to a DTV sequel ever.
And in case you are worrying, it doesn’t skimp on the action either – Adkins’ brawl with Russian MMA fighter Andrei Arlovski in a sports shop was for my money the best action scene of 2012, and ends with Arlovski being decapitated with a baseball bat.
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