With the arrival of Bill & Ted Face the Music, we find ourselves facing down the latest example of what has become known as the ‘legacyquel’.
First coined in late 2015 by Matt Singer in a piece for ScreenCrush, in advance of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the legacyquel operates from different principles than a traditional, standard follow up. The standard sequel continues the established story introduced in the original narrative – The Godfather Part II, for example. A legacyquel revives a property and the characters we came to know, years after the fact, often once they have been immortalised in popular culture – The Godfather Part III, for example, which gave us the final part of Michael Corleone’s tragic story sixteen years after we last saw him. Such immense gaps of time are common in sequels which are expressly designed to recapture, in the audience, a sense of reconnection with worlds and characters, and indeed the actors who play them, who mean a great deal to us.
This is certainly the case with Bill & Ted Face the Music, which expressly delivers another key aspect of the legacyquel – familiarity. Most legacyquels do not rock the creative boat and if they do, it is for a specific reason; a good example that bucks the trend is Star Trek 2009, which J. J. Abrams uses as both a legacyquel (allowing us to reconnect with Leonard Nimoy) and canonical reboot in which we rediscover Kirk & Spock while experiencing their origin stories. Star Trek in that sense is an aberration, with most legacyquels operating to the Bill & Ted principle: more of the same, with a much longer gap. This is the appeal of the legacyquel. Reboots offer nostalgia while exploring new ideas. Sequels or continuing franchises build on what has come before. Legacyquels are all about bringing you ‘home’ again.
This was, in many respects, the intention behind Terminator: Dark Fate. What saddens me is that it didn’t really work.
From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from July 3rd, 2015. Having just rewatched this one in advance of Terminator: Dark Fate, I pretty much stand by these four year old words, even if I was kinder then to the central duo than I was on a rewatch and Tweet thread I did…
There is no fate but the filmmakers make. That should be the new motto for the Terminator franchise, which since T2: Judgment Day way back in 1991 delivered what effectively would have been a perfectly bittersweet conclusion to the concept, has been hacked away at to the point of almost complete dilution. Cue Terminator Genisys.
The unfairly maligned T3: Rise of the Machines attempted its own sense of finality until Terminator: Salvation came along and put what seemed like a nail in the cinematic coffin, as leaden and misjudged as it was. Enter Skydance to mop up the rights to James Cameron’s franchise, long scattered to the Hollywood winds, and announce the beginning of a brand new trilogy that will revive the Terminator saga, not to mention revive the post-Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger in the most seminal role of his career. That’s fine, right? The Terminator franchise has always poked about in temporal mechanics, with multiple timelines on film and TV versions, not to mention multiple actors in the signature roles of Sarah Connor, John Connor and now Kyle Reese. Genisys would be the start of a fresh new take on the war against the machines, right?
Well no. There’s nothing fresh about Terminator Genisys. It could be described akin to a James Cameron greatest scenes hits package left out to steadily roast in the sun.
If someone asked you to name five, even perhaps ten Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, chances are none of them would be Red Heat. Even in the context of the 80’s, arguably his most successful period as a marquee action star, Walter Hill’s buddy cop action thriller hasn’t resonated down the ages as a signature Arnie movie. The question is why.
For a start, Red Heat deliberately eschews what by this point people had started to love the Austrian Oak for – his clumsy, cod-American charisma, most effectively delivered in films such as Commando in 1985 or Predator in 1987 (and they would see again later in 1988 with Twins). That isn’t to say that Arnie’s Soviet detective Ivan Danko doesn’t wisecrack—he often does, for deliberate ‘fish out of water’ effect’—but Danko lacks the hard man smarts of John Matrix or Dutch Schaefer. Arnie has to play him more like the T-800 in a Russian costume, with occasional deadpan comic lines. He ports some of this style actually into the T-800 when he plays a reversed, good-guy version of the character in Terminator 2: Judgment Day three years later.
This presents a problem, in that Arnie comes off a little stilted, a little restrained. By this point, as he has settled deeper into the acting persona he has started to develop, Schwarzenegger struggles to play both the straight man *and* comic foil in Red Heat, which is essentially is forced to do. In theory, James Belushi’s smart-mouthed Chicago cop, his reluctant partner Art Ridzik, should fill the comic role but he just comes off as Martin Riggs with the edges filed off, and Belushi—a gifted comic actor—just doesn’t have the material to be more than an annoyance for much of the picture. There’s a reason Art Ridzik never comes up when people talk about the 80’s finest buddy cop characters, you know? Red Heat falls down because the central partnership never really comes alive, and the premise is predicated to an extent on the match up.
The reason Red Heat is perfectly watchable, however, lies in some of the broader aspects to Hill’s picture.
Somebody on Twitter suggested the tagline for Gemini Man should have been “where there’s a Will, there’s a Will” which not only made me laugh but also could aptly describe Ang Lee’s rather uncanny picture.
Gemini Man infamously resided in Hollywood’s so-called ‘development hell’ for two decades, with Darren Lemke’s idea snapped up by producer Jerry Bruckheimer as far back as 1997. It filtered through multiple directors over the years such as Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan, not to mention a galaxy of Hollywood megastars including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, even at one time, err, Chris O’Donnell. The list goes on. It even cycled through half a dozen writers – Billy Ray, Andrew Niccol, Brian Helgeland. Gemini Man, in other words, has been through the wringer across twenty years in which mainstream cinema has significantly changed, not being made principally because studios didn’t believe the technology to duplicate a younger version of their headline star was quite there.
Fast forward to the late 2010’s, a world of VR headsets, advanced home computer devices and CG technology which can paint a picture like Avengers: Endgame, in which a legion of superheroes go to war against a super-villain and his space army. If ever there was a time to make Gemini Man, it was now, yet who two decades ago would have imagined Ang Lee—principally a darling of thoughtful character-driven deconstruction—as the director to develop such a high concept as international assassin Will Smith doing battle with his younger, cloned self, all part of an insidious conspiracy within the Defence Intelligence Agency to develop the next generation of soldier hardware. This might have ended up in the hands of a Tony Scott or Roger Spottiswoode had it been made earlier.
The answer lies in the fact Gemini Man, for all it’s action thriller trappings, secretly wants to be a philosophical family drama. It just spends much of the running time trying to convince you otherwise.
Last Blood, ostensibly the final chapter of the Rambo saga, serves as a fitting portrait of America’s dark, lumbering national psyche.
In a film which starts predictable and just keeps getting more so, Last Blood gives us a growling, jaded old warrior in John Rambo. Having survived Vietnam (twice), Afghanistan and Burma’s killing fields, this veteran now fights entirely on home turf for the first time since the franchise began. Rambo ranches cattle, looks after his adopted Mexican immigrant family, and for fun appears to build an entire underground lair filled with weapons beneath his traditional American prairie homestead. This isn’t even a Rambo planning for the apocalypse. This is a Rambo living his *own* eternal apocalypse, trapped somewhere between a grizzled Rooster Cogburn and damaged Captain Willard, living only in the reveries of his tortured past and the hope of a young girl in which he sees a future. Which naturally gets snatched away, as it wouldn’t be a Rambo film if Stallone’s hero didn’t traverse a river of pain to attain some inner peace.
Last Blood, however, maybe unknowingly, doesn’t seem to know if Rambo is a hero at all anymore. As an audience we may appreciate Sly’s innate, snarling Italian-American nobility—in the same manner we consider his Austrian compatriot Arnold Schwarzenegger—but Adrian Grunberg’s film is at pains to remind us this guy isn’t Rocky Balboa. Rambo is psychologically haunted by Vietnam, even all these years later, literally replaying events from First Blood and the conflict in his mind. When Gabriela (Yvette Monreal), his naive ‘ward’, ends up the victim of lawless Mexican organised crime gangsters, Rambo unleashes one-man savagery on anyone even tangentially connected to them. He admits he just wants revenge, pure and simple. He is past healing. He will live in his anger for the rest of his days.
Rambo feels like the haunted reflection of a growling, aged, vicious and vengeful America at the end of a long road. It’s dreams and hopes are dead. Now all that’s left is monstrous.
Last Action Hero is both ahead of its time and perfectly positioned *within* the era it was made, such is the paradox of a forgotten curiosity of 1990’s action cinema and the stratospheric career of Arnold Schwartzenegger.
Here’s my story and why I’m writing about Last Action Hero some twenty five years on from its release. I was 11 years old when Last Action Hero was released in cinemas, in the US one week after Steven Spielberg’s decade-defining Jurassic Park. In theory, I was the perfect age to consume a film which is entirely about the youthful obsession of a similarly-aged child, Austin O’Brien’s Danny Madigan, with action adventure cinema. Jurassic Park I badgered my parents to take me to see three times yet I didn’t go anywhere near Last Action Hero. It didn’t even register with me. It has taken me until age 36 to actually sit down and watch it, and this is after spending at least the last twenty years being an enormous fan of Schwarzenegger’s movies and career. Last Action Hero was always the Arnie film I missed.
With the advent of Justice League, many fans and commentators are once again discussing the concept of the ‘Cinematic Universe’, given the formative attempts by DC Comics over the last several years to emulate the rampant success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the first truly successful and revolutionary cinematic model of an overarching mythological world of characters and narratives informing one another. Inevitably with the internet, it’s leading to a war of trolls – Marvelita haters and DC sceptics waging a pointless conflict over territorial ownership and trying the answer the utterly subjective question – ‘which is better?’. For every critic who tells you the MCU is technically stronger as a tapestry, you’ll easily find more than enough ‘DCEU’ defenders to race in with their Amazonian swords and claim everything Marvel has done is powerfully overrated. There can be no victor in such a battle.
In truth, discussion of the Cinematic Universe has never gone away. Hollywood and the blockbuster movie system has been utterly consumed and dominated by the power of a connected storytelling model, following the template Marvel Studios laid down. It has arguably changed the very fabric of the cinematic franchise. Following the essential advent of the ‘blockbuster’ in the mid-1970’s with Jaws and of course Star Wars, it took Hollywood a while to truly embrace the idea of creating what we accept as a ‘franchise’. Sequels had always existed – we can go back as far as 1916 indeed for the first recognised follow up, Thomas Dixon Jr’s The Fall of a Nation, which carried on the story from DW Griffith’s historically polarising The Birth of a Nation – but it was truly the 1980’s that gave birth to the notion of a franchise, once Star Wars developed sequels to George Lucas’ game-changing original movie and developed an entire cinematic eco-system around the property.
Sequels, nonetheless, remained *sequels*. Film number two. Taking the characters and situations from the first successful picture and moving them in new directions, though not always. Many sequels in the 80’s and 1990’s simply re-trod all of the same beats people loved about the first movies, mostly with diminishing returns. That’s what made The Empire Strikes Back so powerful; it took Star Wars and those characters truly in new, challenging directions and forever altered their destinations. Not every sequel took such a bold leap forward for its characters and narrative. Many played it safe, an accusation oddly levelled at some of the recent cinematic universes which were born out of the ashes of continuing storylines.