Things that make you go boom

An inventory of this summer’s blockbuster action sequels

Niels Strandskov

Every year it seems Hollywood’s mercenary compulsion has reached its zenith. “This is it,” supposes the observer. “We simply can’t have a more derivative crop of sequels, re-makes and spin-offs next year.” But this is an erroneous supposition. This year’s bevy of blockbusters includes at least seven sequels to hit action films. The first two to be released, “X2: X-Men United” and “The Matrix Reloaded,” currently playing in area theaters, represent the quality spectrum of big-budget sequels.

“X2” is everything a sequel should be. The filmmakers have wisely declined to pander to the lowest common denominator by submerging the plot in a lot of long-winded explication. Instead, the viewer is immediately catapulted into the X-Men’s fast-paced world of repressive government controls on mutants and shifting alliances between the mutants themselves. In this, it eclipses its predecessor, which patronized the non-comic-book-reading public by laboriously explaining the ground rules of the X-Men’s universe and the back stories of the various characters. Here we have a fairly simple plot: Reactionary elements scheme to capture the telepathic Professor X (played with wit and verve by Patrick Stewart) and use his powers to attempt to psychically destroy all mutants. The genius of the film is not in its plot, or even in the thinly-veiled allegory of life in Attorney General John Ashcroft’s United States. Rather, “X2” succeeds by giving the comic book cognoscenti what they want: exquisitely rendered scenes of our favorite mutants using their powers in a live-action setting, which enraptures us with a sense of wonder.

Sadly, “The Matrix Reloaded” is everything a sequel should not be. The “Back to the Future: Part II” of our generation, “Reloaded” feels like it was produced by the same committee we occasionally catch a glimpse of on “The Simpsons.” You know, the collection of sniveling writers, toadying producers and utterly unoriginal studio executives that insist on inflicting Poochie on “The Itchy and Scratchy Show” for demographic reasons. “Reloaded” is ponderous, laden with unnecessary character development and “deep thoughts,” badly paced and unable to stand alone as a story. Instead of the hyper-paranoid, Phillip K. Dickian feel of the original, we have a meandering plot concerning Neo’s (Keanu “Whoa” Reeves) race to find “the source” before Zion, humanity’s last refuge, is destroyed by those mechanical squid thingies. This wouldn’t really be so bad, except that gratuitous scene after gratuitous scene has been inserted to make the film into some kind of bizarre date movie. While it is amusing to see noted scholar Cornell West in a cameo as one of Zion’s city councilors, every scene set outside the Matrix makes no sense at all. Apparently, the producers have also forgotten that virtually everyone on the planet saw the original film and that changing the rules of the Matrix without any explanation is a ridiculous way to solve plot problems. (Why, for instance, are the formerly invincible agents now relatively vulnerable to the non-messianic judo of Larry Fishburne, Carrie Anne Moss and Jada Pinkett-Smith?) The “Reloaded” experience bodes ill for the forthcoming blockbuster action sequels.

“The Fast and the Furious” succeeded based on three elements: Vin Diesel, hot rods and a resistant reading of the female hot-rodder/mechanic characters by some lesbian viewers. Take out Diesel and the ambiguously coded mechanic women for the sequel “2 Fast 2 Furious” and what’s left? Just souped-up import cars and some hip-hop star cameos. Will this film equal the success of the original? Perhaps. It seems more than likely, however, that this effort could represent the end of the franchise. This should cause little consternation, because most movies have car chases and Vin Diesel shows no sign of desisting when in comes to inflicting his talent on the moviegoing public.

Which child of the 1970s can forget the premier jigglevision spectacle of that lamented decade? I refer of course to Aaron Spelling’s slickly exploitative “Charlie’s Angels.” The 2000 film version, despite that it preserved the lurid visual language of the television series, lacked the naive camp value of the original. After two films’ worth of well-choreographed kung-fu sequences, stars Drew Barrymore, Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz might now be able to fight their way out of their respective wet paper bags, but that does not mean they can act their way out. The saving grace for “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” will be Crispin Glover’s reappearance as the dastardly Thin Man. This will mark the first time Glover has willingly appeared in a sequel. (His scenes in “Back to the Future Part II” were cobbled together from old footage, and his resulting lawsuit against the producers was instrumental in ushering in new Screen Actors Guild rules about the use of actors’ images.)

“Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” has its good points and its bad points. One good point is that the insufferable James Cameron is not directly connected to the production. A bad point is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is using the promotional tour for the film as an unofficial springboard for his campaign to become governor of California in 2006. A good point is that the most advanced Terminator yet shown is female. A bad point is that Edward Furlong was too “exhausted” to play John Connor, so we have to pretend Nick Stahl is what Eddie would look like all grown up. These points aside, the film promises more explosions, more exploding semis and more people running away from explosions than any of the other offerings this summer. And that’s what we need to see for an action movie to be any good.

Here’s where most articles of this type would condescend to inform you about Angelina Jolie’s second turn as “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider.” This year’s iteration is subtitled “The Cradle of Life.” But we all know what the main attractions of that movie are, so let us instead consider what is sure to be the sleeper hit action movie sequel of the summer: “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde.” Reese Witherspoon is an unlikely action hero, given her penchant for playing ingenues. She was pretty tough in “Election,” however, and “Red, White and Blonde” sees her returning to the subject of political intrigue as her character Elle Woods goes to Washington to turn Congress upside down. Although the trailers don’t show it, I’m sure that there will be an exploding car or two to liven up the pace and probably a white-knuckled Mexican stand-off in the finale.

“X2: X-Men United” and “The Matrix Reloaded” are now showing at area theaters. “2 Fast 2 Furious” opens June 6. “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” opens June 27. “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines” and “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde” open July 2. “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” opens July 25. All films will open in excessively wide release.

Niels Strandskov welcomes comments at [email protected]