By Craig Phillips
In honor of the release of Harold and Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay, a sequel that may only be marginally superior to the first one in concept and laughs (and some critics are already divided on that point) what the heck, I bring you a sampling of follow-up films that very clearly improved on the originals. In some cases, the originals have plenty of merit on their own, but for various reasons their makers felt all the more inspired for the subsequent go-round. I should also add the caveat here that for the purposes of this list, and some simplicity, I did not consider longer running series such as James Bond (the second and third films of which could be argued to be superior to the first -- and any that followed!) But feel free to post your own suggestions here in the comments below.
Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior: Not that the original Mad Max isn't pretty nifty, too, especially now that we have a non-badly dubbed version to enjoy on DVD, but the second one was more exciting, visionary and damned good storytelling. George Miller's post-apocalyptic Australia is brilliantly realized and the spectacularly brutal action set pieces make this one of my favorite action films of all time.
A Shot in the Dark: Superior to the first Pink Panther (still charming) movie in just about every way. By the second film, Blake Edwards and company had realized that Peter Sellers' Clouseau, not David Niven's jewel thief, was the most compelling character. And here the comedy was honed so skillfully here. The first appearance of Clouseau's boss, played hilariously here and in all the sequels by Herbert Lom, and his domestic-slash-martial arts expert Kato. A comic classic. The subsequent sequels got sillier and sillier, never balancing the sophisticated humor with the slapstick as well as Edwards did here.
The Empire Strikes Back: It's hard to ignore the magic that was the first Star Wars, a film that despite its corny moments still enthralls me today. But for sheer action and suspense from start to finish -- all the thrills, chills and tie-fighter spills you'd hope for - it's hard to beat the second movie in the series. And Lucas and company never did.
The Two Towers: Like Empire, the second Rings movie ends without complete satisfaction, as both films knew there was to be a third and final installment (except in Star Wars' case, they lied). The Two Towers has the fewest "down" parts and introduces some great characters, particularly the Ents, the slow-talking tree-like creatures. When the Ents finally get pissed off enough to act at the end, it's one of the series' great moments. A spectacular battle scene - well, two, really - and the spectacularly realized Gollum (thanks to magical CGI and Andy Serkis), who takes more of a role here than in the first, make this my favorite of the three.
Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan is a no brainer here, though some of my Trekkie fan friends have tried to convince me in recent years that the first Star Trek film is unfairly maligned. And in some ways it is, but, sorry, I still find it quite ponderous. The second film brought back the original show's sense of play and excitement in addition to some of the beloved Trek philosophy. Ricardo Montalban and Shatner both overact greatly but that's just part of the fun. FULL POWER! DAMN YOU!
For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good the Bad and the Ugly: Both superior to the first film in Sergio Leone's seminal Spaghetti Western "Dollars" trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964). While Leone hadn't actually intended these films to be sequels to the first, they were and are seen as a piece, with Clint Eastwood each time playing "The Man With No Name" (although in For a Few Dollars More he actually does seem to have a name, "Monco") and with similar styles and themes it's hard not see them all as a set. The exciting third film is my personal favorite (and while Ennio Morricone scored each of them is there a more memorable Spaghetti Western theme than the one he did for Good/Bad/Ugly?) A better cast in the 2nd and 3rd films also helps push them up to a higher level. Lee Van Cleef is brilliant in both and Eli Wallach is unforgettable as Tuco in the third. Essentially, the two best SpagWesterns ever made.
Where to put Evil Dead II (1987) on this list? After all, while it's generally better than Evil Dead (1981), with a bigger budget and Sam Raimi more experienced as a filmmaker, this spooky cabin/evil spirits horror comedy is as much a remake of the first film as it is a true sequel. Which is why I'm also including Army of Darkness (aka Evil Dead III) here, which takes Ash (Bruce Campbell) back in time, to great comic effect. While the first Evil Dead had it's comic moments, Evil Dead II really ratched up the comedy. Both films throw in plenty of nods to Ray Harryhausen and are just generally a real blast. In short, as Ash would say, "Groovy."
Legend of the Drunken Master a.k.a. Drunken Master II: Not only my favorite Jackie Chan movie but possibly the greatest martial arts film not starring Bruce Lee. But this one not only has above average plot and acting, but dynamite action. For anyone who only knows of Jackie Chan from his rather dumb Western comedies, this film should be required viewing, a reminder as to how he got his fame in the first place. Of course, it should also be mentioned that the original Drunken Master (1978) is incredibly funny and has its own merits. But Legend/DM2 is a true classic. (Too bad Miramax has only given us the edited, dubbed version on DVD.)
Dawn of the Dead: Really, George Romero's second "Dead" film could not be more different than Night of the Living Dead:, which has its place in any zombie movie lover's heart (such as mine), but in the sequel, set in a shopping mall, Romero splices in some wicked satire of consumer culture gone rabid alongside the gore and scares. It could be argued that this is the best zombie film ever made; it's certainly the most influential (and the not-bad remake didn't have the same glee). It doesn't have the low budget immediacy of the first film, but with a wider scope it hits more targets too. "We've got to survive! Somebody's got to survive! "
Flirting: John Duigan's lovely sequel to The Year My Voice Broke (which is sadly OOP at the moment) is more consistent -- though the first has plenty of charm, too -- in this coming of age story set in a boarding school. Noah Taylor's Danny is a wonderfully clumsy young protagonist as he stumbles about through matters of the heart. Not only one of Nicole Kidman's first high profile roles, and the lovely Thandie Newton, but look fast for a very young Naomi Watts, too.
Honorable Mention, or Open to Debate:
This is a late addition to my list: Addams Family Values, which in my opinion is quite superior to the initial film. The first one had its share of charms as it introduced the cinematic version of Charles Addams' happily ghoulish family, with Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston so perfectly cast. But whereas the plot in the first is a bit scant (is it the real Uncle Fester or isn't it, and who cares?) and the pace a little plodding, in the second things really get going with the addition of Joan Cusack's conniving nanny and her diabolical plan to marry and rip off Fester. That and the expanded roles for the Addams kids and a hilarious summer camp subplot and, well, if it's not a classic either, it's certainly more fun. (Plus Carol Kane as Grandma in the second film, more perfect casting.)
Gremlins 2 (funnier than the original, but I wouldn't categorize it as "better"); Toy Story 2; God of Gamblers II; Aliens (though I for one think the original film is pretty brilliant); Terminator 2; Superman II (a sequel both interesting and entertaining and yet, again, I wouldn't necessarily deem it better than the first one).
Tied: Godfather I and II are equally brilliant and flawless, in my estimation, though I know many have argued that the second is even better. Even if this is true, it's still too close to call.
POLL: What do you think? Best Sequels
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