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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge