Friday Night Seitz
Slide show: Summer is the season of mediocre retread cinema -- but which is the most dreadful ever made?
“Staying Alive” (1983)
Can a film whose sheer irrelevancy and awfulness has given so many hours of pleasure really be considered one of the worst sequels of all time? I have to ask that question because Sylvester Stallone’s follow-up to “Saturday Night Fever” is, in its own horrifically incompetent way, mesmerizing. I can’t think of another movie that better illustrates the point when cocaine abuse in Hollywood started to seep into the very texture of American movies, making them narcissistic, arrogant, hateful, easily distracted and incapable of transitioning from one point to the next. John Travolta returns as Tony Manero, the Brooklyn, N.Y., disco king who, between the last film and this one, has inexplicably developed an obsession with dancing on Broadway. He’s torn between a good-hearted gal whom he uses (Cynthia Rhodes) and a rich British bitch (Finola Hughes) who uses him, and he’s accosted at every turn by gorgeous babes eager to get their hands on his Italian sausage. (In contrast to John Badham’s original “Saturday Night Fever,” this time it’s not the characters who have a problem with women, it’s the movie.)
The finale — in which Tony dances the lead male role in a rock musical titled “Satan’s Alley” — is one of the worst musical numbers ever filmed, choppy and trashy, with the dancer’s motions bearing almost no relation to the rhythm of the music. It looks as though Bob Fosse made a music video for some mediocre mid-’80s power-rock band, then fed it through a wood chipper. The movie’s only redeeming feature is the final scene in which Tony celebrates his stage triumph by doing a “strut” to the tune of the Bee Gees’ original “Saturday Night Fever” hit “Staying Alive.” For one brief, shining moment, we collectively delude ourselves that none of the preceding action actually happened — that it was all just a dream.
“Highlander 2: The Quickening” (1991)
Not that the original film about immortal swordsmen (Christopher Lambert’s McLeod and Clancy Brown’s Kurgan) dueling across time was any kind of artistic masterpiece. But it was coherent, exciting, funny and entertaining, the sort of film you’d stumble onto while channel surfing and end up watching all the way through. The long-delayed sequel was an abomination — slow, talky, hard to follow, largely humorless, and sorely lacking the sense of swashbuckling machismo that made the first film a lowdown pleasure. (It’s set in a world made dark by the depletion of the ozone layer, which prevents the sun’s rays from reaching earth; not 100 percent sure about the script’s scientific plausibility there, but whatevs.) The film also contains — I kid you not — the absolute worst, most annoying, most brain-meltingly stupid guest appearance by a major star in the entire history of fantasy films. I’m referring to Sean Connery’s return as the hero’s mentor, Ramirez, who appears to him during an performance of Wagner’s “G
“Batman and Robin” (1997)
So bad on so many levels that it very nearly goes round the bend and becomes good, “Batman and Robin” is the fourth film in the rebooted “Batman” franchise, and the one that pretty much killed it until 2005, when “Batman Begins” came along and repaired the damage. George Clooney played the franchise’s third Caped Crusader (following Michael Keaton and Val Kilmer); Chris O’Donnell returned as Robin, who’d made his debut opposite Kilmer in 1995′s “Batman Forever”; Alicia Silverstone, then hot off her success in “Clueless,” played Batgirl. The movie also had two main villains, Mr. Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Poison Ivy (Uma Thurman). Except for O’Donnell and Silverstone, who brought a certain appealing earnestness to their scenes, the entire cast was irritating, and all involved were let down by Akiva Goldsman’s incoherent, quip-heavy script, and Joel Schumacher’s alternately sludgy and choppy direction, which suggested a comic book fantasy that Simon LeBon might have envisioned after dropping acid at the Limelight in about 1986. The best thing to come out of this movie is George Clooney’s post-1997 movie career; he had such a bad experience making “Batman and Robin,” and was so embarrassed by the finished product, that he swore to never again do a film just for the money.
“Jaws 3-D” and “Jaws: The Revenge” (1987) (Tie)
“Jaws II” was a completely unnecessary sequel, but at least it had an energy that temporarily distracted you from how stupid it was. “Jaws 3-D” and “Jaws: The Revenge” build their inanities right into the film’s plots. Being lost at sea with a giant shark chasing you? Scary. Being attacked by a great white shark at a Sea World-type water park? Not so scary. Because you see, water parks … are basically zoos. And they’re built into the land, and if you’re on land, see, a shark isn’t as scary.
The equally silly “Jaws: The Revenge” finds Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary), the widow of Sheriff Brody from the first two films, leaving Amity Island for the Bahamas after yet another great white shark eats her son Sean; the shark follows her to the Bahamas, where she battles it with help from pilot Hoagie Newcombe (Michael Caine).As Roger Ebert wrote, “I believe that the shark wants revenge against Mrs. Brody. I do. I really do believe it. After all, her husband was one of the men who hunted this shark and killed it, blowing it to bits. And what shark wouldn’t want revenge against the survivors of the men who killed it?”
“Star Wars, Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” (1999)
George Lucas’ “Star Wars” films had colonized the imaginations of two generations of viewers, and were so much a part of their personalities, that when this talky, convoluted prequel finally came out, there was a tendency to look for the silver lining and say that the production design was great, the pod race sequence was exciting, Ewan McGregor did a really good Alec Guinness impression as Obi-Wan, and so forth. But in reality it was mostly rotten, and its rottenness was made even more unconscionable by knowledge that the original trilogy, whatever its deficiencies as drama, was at least light on its feet. There are many poor choices here — making Anakin Skywalker a little boy, and casting the role with a child who couldn’t act; attempting to create a new C-3P0 in the form of blundering Rasta alien Jar-Jar Binks; spending about 30 percent of the movie in conference rooms. The series got better; the last 40 minutes of “Attack of the Clones” was exciting, and “Revenge of the Sith” has a compellingly grim atmosphere and a ’70s-style downer ending. But that’s backhanded praise; after “The Phantom Menace,” the series had nowhere to go but up.
“Speed 2: Cruise Control” (1997)
The 1994 action movie “Speed” was one of the most improbably good thrillers of its decade — a deliriously exciting pure action film. It was also a wrong place, right time movie in the tradition of “Die Hard,” which meant that when the first movie became a hit, the studio demanded a sequel even though the original’s charm was all bound up in the idea that the main characters were all drawn together by happenstance. Like the “Die Hard” sequels, only more so, “Speed 2: Cruise Control” made the original seem even more unbelievable and silly in retrospect, and was just a flat-out bad idea in the first place. Sandra Bullock reprised her role as Annie, the plucky dame who just happened to be on the hijacked bus on the first “Speed” and ended up helping Keanu Reeves’ hero save the day; how many terrorist actions can a gal get pulled into, anyway? Reeves didn’t want to appear in the sequel, which takes place on a cruise ship taken over by Willem Dafoe’s deranged hacker, so director Jan de Bont and his writers give Annie a new boyfriend — a SWAT team hot dog played by Jason Patric, who’s twice the actor Keanu Reeves is, but half as lovable. His character is dull, the entire story is ho-hum, Dafoe is not terribly menacing for some reason, and guys … guys …guys! You can’t put the word “speed” in the title of a movie if it’s set on a cruise ship!
“Superman IV: The Quest for Peace” (1987)
Regrettably, this was a pet project of star Christopher Reeve, who wanted to do a movie about one of his passions, nuclear disarmament. The plot of this one finds Superman/Clark Kent torn about what to do when the United States and the Soviet Union teeter on the brink of nuclear war; he ends up going to the United Nations and telling them he’s going to rid the earth of nuclear weapons, then keeping his word. Gene Hackman, who played Superman’s arch-nemesis Lex Luthor in the first two movies, creates a nuclear-powered Superman clone known as Nuclear Man, and the two super-beings duke it out. The film seems unaware that the Nuclear Man plot contradicts Reeves’ heartfelt belief that disarmament is the answer to nuclear proliferation, since the plot is close to that hypothetical scenario in which a western town gets rid of all its guns in a fit of pacifism, then one bad hombre rides into town with one revolver and terrorizes everyone else. On top of its conceptual problems, “Superman IV” is a depressingly bad film, clunkily written, ineptly directed (by Sidney J. Furie), and produced with far less money than was available for the first three pictures. The other films in the series were produced by Alexander and Ilya Salkind for Warner Bros; this one was made by high-end exploitation company Golan & Globus, a miserly gang of hucksters. The flying scenes are especially unconvincing; the actors wobble around as if starring in a stage production of “Peter Pan.”
“Sex and the City 2″ (2010)
Wherein four self-centered rich ladies who were always more enthusiastic than likable become nerve-shreddingly self-centered harpies, and the film is happy to join them on their journey toward utter worthlessness. There’s almost nothing going on in “Sex and the City 2″ except wealth porn, with writer-director Michael Patrick King’s camera lingering lasciviously over clothes, shoes and architecture. The movie’s second half, which contrives to send all four women on a trip to the United Arab Emirates (actually locations in Morocco) amounts to product placement for an entire country, even though it turns sour in the end by unfavorably contrasting the country’s subjugation of women with our heroines’ unfettered ability to bang anybody they please, buy anything they want and never fly coach.
“Blues Brothers 2000″ (1998)
John Landis’ original 1980 film “The Blues Brothers” was a lumbering, overscaled affair, but that was part of its charm; its sheer excess — all those musical numbers, all those car wrecks — was mesmerizing, like watching a man set fire to bundles of cash. And there was a weird purity to it. There had never been a movie quite like it, and at that scale ($30 million, a fortune in 1980) it was risky; if the audience didn’t like the result, the movie’s releasing studio, Universal, could have been crippled, as United Artists was crippled by “Heaven’s Gate” (1981).
There is nothing charming, mesmerizing or in any way risky about the belated sequel “Blues Brothers 2000.” Dan Aykroyd’s character, Elwood Blues, gets out of jail 18 years after the original film and learns that both his brother Jake (John Belushi) and his surrogate father, Curtis (Cab Calloway), are dead; he eventually joins forces with a bartender-singer called Mighty Mack (John Goodman) and a 10-year-old orphan named Buster (J. Evan Bonifant), revisits locations and characters from the first film (Aretha Franklin performs “Respect”) and eventually ends up heading to New Orleans to take part in a battle of the bands, held at the mansion of a voodoo priestess (Erykah Badu). Landis and Aykroyd (who co-wrote the script) have just rehashed the original film 18 years later, with the remaining major players looking older and puffier. There are new car chases, a new bunch of white supremacists, new musical set pieces (including a gospel blowout). But it all feels so … old. And tired. And cynical.
“Rocky V” (1990)
You could make a case that none of the sequels to “Rocky” (1976) were necessary, because the original movie had such a clearly defined story (underdog goes the distance and takes control of his life) that when it was over, there was nothing to add. But at least the first three sequels — “Rocky II” (1979), “Rocky III” (1982) and “Rocky IV” (1985) — had a certain pulpy urgency. The first sequel was about the burden of male pride. The second was about how hard is is for a poor man to hang onto his youthful hunger after he’s achieved his dream. The third sequel was an expression of America’s Reagan-era id and Sylvester Stallone’s huckster soul, a bizarre, almost science-fictional fantasy in which Rocky becomes the white Joe Louis, a representative of American ideals battling a gigantic Soviet boxer (Dolph Lundgren).
In “Rocky V,” Rocky moves back to the old neighborhood after having squandered his money and takes on a brutish prot
Every Friday, Salon writer Matt Zoller Seitz sifts through beloved classics and obscure indies for a slide show that sheds light on the hidden connections and most fascinating moments in film and TV history.