The belated sequel is an odd creation. The direct sequel, two to three years after an original, is standard Hollywood fare, of course. And the remake or ‘reimagining’ is also common these days. But every now and then a filmmaker or a studio (or a marketing department) green light a sequel to an original property a decade or more after it first came to light. Billed as a chance to “catch up with our favourite characters”, these films attempt a difficult balancing act of appealing to the built in audience, which will have aged significantly since the original film appealed to them, whilst re-launching the property to a new audience. Last year, we had two such movies released, the largely successful Tron sequel: Tron Legacy and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.
The film opens with a scene that was shown shot for shot in the initial trailers. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is being released from prison after serving time for fraud and insider trading. The guard is handing back his possessions including a gold money clip (empty) and a mobile phone (brick-like). It is, quite simply, a genius opening sequence. At once reintroducing us to the character through his possessions (a wonderfully 80’s concept of course – you are what you own) but also clearly demonstrating how much time has passed since the last film far more powerfully than any lines of dialogue could. Once out, Gordon publishes a book, “Is Greed Good?”, a supposedly damning indictment of the current financial system and the risks that were growing unchecked within it. He also hopes to reconnect with his estranged daughter Winnie, who is dating Jake Moore, who is himself a successful Wall Street trader at a major investment bank. Gordon sees Jake as his way back in: but is he looking for a way back to his daughter, or a way back into the global game of roulette known as high finance?
It’s the classic belated sequel formula – take as many of the old cast as are willing to reappear, infuse it with the young blood of current Hollywood in the hope that both fans of the original and a younger audience will come running. In the case of Wall Street 2, this means adding hot young things Carey Mulligan and Shia LaBeouf as the aforementioned daughter and boyfriend. Their names will certainly look good on the poster, but the obvious draw here is Michael Douglas returning to his Oscar-winning role. And whatever else I’m going to say about the film, it’s a joy to see him back. Douglas is Hollywood royalty and his unmatched screen presence is something to behold. Gekko has clearly been aged by his time in prison but still has that rock solid core running right through him and through a dignified and reserved performance, Douglas finds the perfect midpoint – the man is battered and old, but still lightning quick and tough as old boots. It is simply unfair to put him on screen with LaBeouf.
It’s become fair game to mock Shia LaBeouf’s “acting talents”. The most obvious comparison is that he’s simply this decade’s Keanu Revees (minus The Matrix). Pretty to look at, nothing else going on. In some ways, he’s actually very good at portraying the vain, over-confident trader Moore, and his opening scenes work well. But the second he’s put in the same shot as Douglas, he crumbles. You can feel the acting going on behind the eyes, each facial tick or desperate eye waver linked to a thought process rather than an emotion. And all the while, Douglas sits back and simply is Gekko. In keeping with the belated sequel formula, the original character takes a back seat and the new blood comes to the fore, meaning we have to follow Jake’s life while Gekko pops in and out, lending a hand here, causing trouble there. And so we’re left to watch LaBeouf floundering alongside a surprisingly proficient cast (clearly working with Oliver Stone is still a draw in Hollywood) playing a series of incredibly stereotyped roles.
Mulligan’s main job appears to be start off stoic then break down in tears, something the actress has perfected by the end of this film. Josh Brolin is the “eeeeeeevil” bank chairman who simply cannot have enough money. There’s no attempt to humanise his character, he’s simply a cipher for all the bad things that super rich bankers supposedly do. Frank Langella is watchable (as ever) as the kindly old chairman of Moore’s bank but you’d never believe for one minute that such a character would run a major investment house. Susan Sarandon pops up incredibly briefly as Jake’s twitchy, real-estate-selling mother: a character created entirely to represent the hard working Americans who gave up their old jobs in order to revel in the easy credit that the evil bankers have offered, hers is probably the worst of the creations. And of course true to form, a “star” from the original appears for a single scene cameo. I shan’t ruin who that is for you, but rest assured, it is suitably cringeworthy and utterly unrelated to the actual story being told.
At its most basic level, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is one gigantic pantomime. The young hero and his plucky love interest take on the big boo hiss bad guy. And right in the middle of all this is the great dame Michael Douglas running the show, laughing at everyone else and grabbing all the best lines. What crystallised this image for me was the closing of the film. It could easily have stopped ten minutes before it actually does: seriously, it even has the perfect ending shot. Had it done so, it would have been an oddly poignant finish that would have been satisfying from both a narrative and character standpoint and could have made up for some of the painfully forced characterisation that proceeds it. Unfortunately, Stone cracks and a simply awful schmaltzy fairytale ending unravelled before my eyes. I was waiting for each member of the cast to walk back on screen to take their bows!
I came away from the film disappointed and unsatisfied. I can’t claim any deep appreciated of the original but my memory of it is as a watchable 80’s classic. And perhaps that’s where it should stay. The sequel is disappointing, surprisingly dull and unbelievable, full of painful stereotypes instead of actual characters. Even the chance to see Michael Douglas doing his thing on-screen again isn’t enough to avoid consigning this film to ever increasing scrap heap of badly thought out resurrections of decades-old characters.