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.

This article first appeared in the 01 January 1970 issue of the New Statesman,

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism