Cinema's two perfect sequels: Bad Boys II and Before Sunset

Viewers often admit to wanting to “know what happened when the cameras stopped rolling” and in their purest form sequels answer those questions.

Looking through the 120-ish DVDs that make up my not entirely representative collection, I noticed a small but revealing trend. Among all the romcoms, the many comedies, the occasional subtitled French movie, the smattering of action films, the determined sprinkling of serious drama, and the still-untouched telly box sets, I saw something I’d never really detected before – I own only two sequels.

The first is Before Sunset, the second part in the story of the American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and the French Céline (Julie Delpy), who met on a train almost a decade earlier. Older generations have Brief Encounter – my generation has Before Sunrise. Let me parse the premise of the film for the unfortunate: Jesse meets Céline on a train somewhere in Europe, they have a chat – about books, family, ghosts, the US, France – and decide to spend a single day together. Ten years later, that little indie romance spawned a catch-up film in which we met up with our two leads again.

The result was even better than the original. Delpy and Hawke co-wrote the film with its director, Richard Linklater, resulting in a movie that wears its authenticity very lightly: is this Delpy talking about the state of the world, or Céline? And when Jesse talks about his marriage, are there shades of Hawke somewhere in the anguished utterings? Time had clearly taken its toll on our once young and carefree duo and the ex-lovers discuss their lives using real world language: life outside the movies is often a series of missed opportunities anyway, and the film manages to convey that most human of urges: hope, against even the steepest odds. Like its predecessor, the plot is almost nonexistent, but what matters here, almost literally, is the journey. It’s beautiful to see.

Viewers often admit to wanting to “know what happened when the cameras stopped rolling” and in their purest form sequels answer those questions. But as well as picking up where the last film dropped off, sequels must do two other things: take the story forward, and perhaps more importantly, make us care. Franchises, a staple of Hollywood in recent years, are not especially hard to make – the argument seems to be “if it’s been successful once before, we can reanimate that barely breathing horse one more time if we have to”. Often it is clear that content and quality are secondary concerns. If in doubt, put in some flashy CGI, or make it 3D. All this is to say a simple truth, not usually acknowledged – sequels are hard to pull off.

It’s curious that we most associate sequels with films, when the reality is that they are a staple of television. This summer has already seen the (US) season finales of several programmes, from The Good Wife and New Girl, to Parks and Recreation and Revenge. The differing quality in the four examples mentioned all add up to this take-home wisdom: in life, follow-up is hard – just ask any single parent struggling unexpectedly alone, or a newspaper columnist scrabbling for an original idea for a column.

Ideas must be fleshed out, worthy of exploration and then almost flawlessly executed. The pressure to deliver is strong, and the possibility for failure unfairly high. Sophomore efforts are raked over with a hawkeye – they reconfirm genius (Parks and Recreation) or show up weaknesses (Revenge), and we pop-culture fans need to have the “statistics” on this at our fingertips.

At the top I mentioned I own two sequels. The second is Bad Boys II. Wait – come back! I know it’s a brainless action film helmed by Michael Bay, but it delivers in every way possible: we pick up where we left off, a friendship between two maverick police partners, solving crime with a side order of wisecracks and mega-explosions; we have character development in spades – Marcus’s family has grown, overcoming the unhappy patch in the original, and Mike is looking to settle down, which is all well and good, except it’s with his partner’s sister, which causes a schism in the partnership.

Why do we care, still? Because drugs are coming into their city and that’s A Bad Thing. It’s a winner in every department. In fact, you could argue that in many ways, Bad Boys II is the perfect sequel. Alongside Before Sunset, of course.

Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys II.

Bim Adewunmi writes about race, feminism and popular culture. Her blog is  yorubagirldancing.com and you can find her on Twitter as @bimadew.

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear