By Owen Gleiberman
Updated March 16, 2011 at 05:58 PM EDT
Jojo Whilden; Everett Collection; Everett Collection

The Color of Money

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Raise your hands if you’d like to see a sequel to The Fighter. When Mark Wahlberg, during an interview with EW’s Jeff Labrecque, announced that he was interested in making one, my first reaction, I’ll be honest, was fairly cynical, with a touch of knee-jerk mockery. The Fighter, a movie I thought was flat-out terrific, brought Wahlberg, as both actor and behind-the-scenes producer-packager, what is probably his greatest blast of triumph since he made his first big splash on the movie scene back in 1997 with Boogie Nights. By all means, I thought, he should build on that success, exploit that new heat. But a sequel to The Fighter? It seemed like an overly cautious move, a case of feeding too much off the acclaim he’d already gotten, of going back to a well that didn’t need to be revisited. It sounded on some level like the prestige version of Rocky syndrome: milking a character who audiences fell for — and, in the process, inviting their connection to that character to be a little less pure and vivid.

This time, though, there truly was a case to be made. Micky Ward, the real-life welterweight champion portrayed by Wahlberg in The Fighter, actually enjoyed his greatest burst of fame after the movie ended, during the trilogy of what Howard Cosell might have called brutally relentless bouts that took place in 2002 and 2003 between Ward and Arturo Gatti, the brilliant and troubled Canadian boxer whose life, in its way, was as colorful as Ward’s. The story of those matches could be riveting. (I have a radical suggestion, too, for the actor who should play Gatti, the putty-faced Roman bruiser: Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino. No, I’m not kidding.) On balance, there are a lot of movies I would look forward to a lot less than a sequel to The Fighter. And that got me to thinking: In a Hollywood where sequels are as common as parking spaces, is it time, once again, to start making sequels to serious movies?

Now, I do realize that there are some fairly gargantuan movie sequels that people, including me, already take quite seriously. Like, say, the Toy Story sequels. Or The Dark Knight. Or the last two chapters of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Or, going back a bit, The Empire Strikes Back and the second and third Indiana Jones films. In that sense, it has long been routine to encounter sequels that are not just glorified cash registers but works of bona fide popular art.

But I’m talking about pictures that aren’t popcorn movies, that don’t spring from that comic-book/fantasy blockbuster DNA. In a way, you almost can’t help but joke about it, in the spirit of the ancient Saturday Night Live sketch Citizen Kane II. You almost have to think of titles like this:

The King’s Speech, Part II. As Colin Firth’s King George VI leads Britain through World War II, his stutter, once vanquished, threatens to return. He now faces his greatest battle: to be or not to be tongue-tied.

Black Swan 2: The Revenge of Lily. Mila Kunis takes center stage in a plot that has her joining the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater to lead a new 21st-century multi-racial version of Revelations. But she is tormented by a rival dancer, played by Beyoncé, who becomes her alter ego and “other” self.

The Japan Syndrome. Thirty years later, Michael Douglas revives his character from The China Syndrome. In a ripped-from-the-headlines docudrama directed by Oliver Stone, he is now an investigator from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who hightails it to earthquake-ravaged Japan to help save the country’s nuclear facilities from meltdown.

No Country for Halloween: Anton Chigurh vs. Michael Myers. Broken-armed but very much undead, Javier Bardem’s scowling phantom killer returns with a giant staple gun (and a new haircut) to face off against the fabled slasher-movie psycho.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Future Life as a Ghostbuster. In a followup to the award-winning, paint-drying Thai metaphysical whatsit?, Uncle Boonmee goes back to the future, where he meets more of those spirits who look like Bigfoot and joins the cast of Ghostbusters 3.

Okay, I’ll stop. Making sequels to serious movies is, of course, not just an old or satirical idea. It’s an idea that, against all odds, has worked so well on several of the occasions it’s been tried that you almost have to wonder why it wasn’t attempted more often. The granddaddy of serious-movie sequels — and, really, the modern launch point for the whole concept — was The Godfather, Part II. Most everyone agrees that Francis Coppola’s 1974 follow-up to his New Hollywood classic is a movie that in every way is worthy of its famous first chapter; many people think it’s even better. (Much as I adore both films, I’ve never agreed with that. I think The Godfather, in the end, is the greater film.) Yet back when Coppola made the picture, it was a hugely counterintuitive move: The first film was already such a classic that he risked falling on his face and mucking with our memories of it.

The Godfather, Part II turned out to be a huge triumph for everyone involved, yet it didn’t spawn any serious-movie-sequel fever. In fact, unless I’m forgetting something, you really had to wait more than 20 years before anyone tried anything like it again. That would be when Martin Scorsese and Paul Newman summoned the daring, the lightly spinning bravura, and the Old Hollywood–meets–New Hollywood respect to make The Color of Money (1986), Scorsese’s jaunty and ebulliently clever 25-years-later sequel to The Hustler. Once again, it wasn’t as great a movie as the original, yet in almost every way it was an intense pleasure. It made good on what we remembered, and loved, about the tricky/noble 9-ball shark “Fast Eddie” Felson.

The Color of Money probably helped open the door to finally doing The Two Jakes, Robert Towne’s long-in-the-works 1990 sequel to Chinatown. This time, unfortunately, the movie was a bust. And that, along with the (underrated, to me) The Godfather, Part III, had a chilling effect. When you make a sequel to a classic and the sequel is perceived as not being good, you leave audiences with the dispiriting feeling that the whole idea of making the movie was a colossal mistake. Even if it doesn’t taint the original, the dud sequel still ends up looking egregiously misguided and parasitic.

Yet when I contemplate The Godfather, Part II and The Color of Money (and — just possibly — the sequel to The Fighter), I think: Those are ideas that may, in a way, have had a lot going against them, but they came off because audacious filmmakers and actors had the guts to imagine them. Unlike most sequels, they’re the opposite of safe. And that leads me to ask: What serious movie, new or old, would you most like to see a sequel to? Which one do you think would really work? I’ll offer one suggestion of my own: I’d love to see a sequel to Waiting for Guffman (1996), the great Christopher Guest comedy in which he created his most indelible character, the bug-eyed bitchy and sublimely myopic musical-theater freak Corky St. Clair. I say: Bring back Corky! And who else?

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The Color of Money

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