Admit it: If you like a movie and a sequel comes out, you’ll probably go see it, even though everyone knows sequels usually suck. I loved Iron Man, but for various reasons, its follow-up didn’t knock my socks off. For every The Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather: Part II, and Gremlins 2: The New Batch, there’s an American Graffiti 2, a The Godfather: Part III, or a Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. Still, every franchise deserves a fair shake, and, luckily, two of the three sequels in theaters this weekend are only second installments.
Since it’s already out, let’s talk about one sequel that’s well beyond No. 2 (but only barely). Is it lazy for a critic to sum up a movie as lazy? Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth installment in the series and directed by Chicago’s Rob Marshall, plays it so close to the previous movies that you can practically predict when Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) will grab a rope and sail into the air. Marshall is taking over from Gore Verbinski, and I guess if you’re taking over a franchise so late in the game, you’re supposed to deliver some series boilerplate. Unfortunately, while the 17th-century maritime world is apparently covered in planks, barrels, and ropes, surely there’s more to do than turn every other scene into either A.) Jack Sparrow standing on something precarious or B.) Jack Sparrow tugging on a rope.
Inspired by On Stranger Tides, a 1987 fantasy novel, the fourth Pirates movie finds Captain Jack and Master Gibbs (Kevin McNally) in another revolting development, on their way to the gallows for piracy, piracy, and more piracy. On the way, Jack discovers he has an impersonator, some other Jack Sparrow who’s busily helming a ship. This revelation exists only to set up some losses of balance and hanging from things and also to introduce Angelika (Penélope Cruz) as a buccaneer and onetime flame. Angelika wants Jack primarily because he knows the location of the famed Fountain of Youth. Oh, and also, she’s the daughter of Blackbeard (Ian McShane), who’s heard a prophecy that in a fortnight (of course), he’ll be slain by a one-legged man.
If you’ve guessed that dastardly frenemy Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) is now conveniently one-legged, you’d be correct. He’s also now a privateer, sent by fat, foppish King George II of England (Richard Griffiths) to beat the Spaniards to the fountain. Barbossa’s really after revenge, because his leg was torn off by Blackbeard. There are also mermaids, because a mermaid tear is crucial to making the fountain’s magic work, and the lasses are awesomely sexy and vicious, dragging unfortunate mutineers (Blackbeard, being Blackbeard, uses the scoundrels for bait) to the bottom to be savagely devoured. McShane delivers a measured menace that is entertaining to watch, particularly when he waves his magic cutlass and causes the rigging of his ship to rise up and ensnare his mutinous crew. But a while later, the ship blasts fire from two huge cannons, which isn’t awesome or magical at all.
While that movie listlessly hits the same tired notes, The Hangover Part II plays with gleeful fury the same licks that made the original a hit, like when your favorite album’s even better live. Hangover II offers a chunk of expository silliness at the beginning to get to the part when the guys wake up mystified from their latest bacchanalia. Do I care why they’re lost in Bangkok? Not really, because the trailer shows Andy from The Office with a tribal face tattoo like Mike Tyson’s, and that looks crazy funny. But I’ll sit through the explanation that Stu (The Office’s Ed Helms, a.k.a. Andy) got divorced from the stripper whom he married in the first film and he’s now getting hitched to the daughter of some wealthy Thai family. The wedding’s in Thailand, and Phil (Bradley Cooper) is already pissed at the expense and becomes outraged when Stu wants his bachelor bro-down to happen at IHOP. At brunch.
Of course, Phil will have none of that, and Dougie (Justin Bartha) is guilt–tripping Stu into inviting Stu’s brother-in-law Alan (Zach Galifianakis). Stu agrees on the promise that there won’t be any tomfoolery. Once they get to the airport, Alan becomes hostile to Teddy (Mason Lee), Stu’s future brother-in-law and a 16-year-old Stanford freshman. And what begins as an innocent late-night six pack on the beach with the four dudes (a group that now includes Teddy, much to Alan’s chagrin) turns into the titular moment of blacked-out misery.
The misery stems from monkey business (quite literally, from a capuchin wearing a denim Rolling Stones vest) involving Vegas gangster Leslie Chow (Ken Jeong, stealing just about every scene he’s in), who awakens in the guys’ squalid Bangkok hotel room under a pile of clothes and dirty linens with his underwear pulled down. The rest of the movie is a series of gags as the guys try to piece together the previous night, as well as find Teddy, who has mysteriously disappeared, leaving nothing but a severed finger. As they follow the foggy mental clues, they get deeper into a situation that begins to look grimmer and grimmer –– when your hostage exchange goes awry because there never was a hostage, you know you’re way past the time the shit hit the fan. And their hole gets deeper and deeper, and you truly get a sense that they’re really not getting out of it this time.
Yeah, they do, and this is really the only point when the movie loses steam (well, that and when Mike Tyson makes another appearance), but director Todd Phillips picks the pace back up with the big reveal of what really happened. Even if you barely crack a smile during the whole thing, these increasingly debased and anarchic snapshots of the pre-hangover will bust your gut open.
Finally, there’s Kung Fu Panda 2. Its 2008 predecessor was a critical and commercial hit, and the sequel delivers. Combined with stunning set pieces and dizzying 3-D fights, it’s thus far the most enjoyable action movie of the summer. Jack Black reprises his animated role as Po the Dragon Warrior, a giant panda and centerpiece of a legendary kung-fu super team. He and his Furious Five — Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper, and Crane (voiced by Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, Lucy Liu, and David Cross) — are a well-oiled machine, and an opening battle with a pack of lupine thugs led by Wolf Boss (voiced by Danny McBride) gets you amped for the Rube Goldberg-esque martial arts that follow. Wolf Boss is stealing metal for Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), an albino peacock and exiled heir to the throne. Shen has weaponized fireworks to gain control over all of China, and it’s up to Po and his wrecking crew to stop them. Unfortunately, Po chokes when confronted with Shen’s sigil, due to a memory Po can barely access, of the day his parents were killed.
Director Jennifer Yuh has a keen eye for fight choreography that’s fluid and manic without spinning into the hyperactive visual noise of a movie like Transformers. And Panda 2’s vision of a China populated by anthropomorphic animals is majestic and gorgeous, all sweeping mountainscapes, shimmering pools, and rippling grass. The main gripe is that much of the stellar vocal talent is criminally underused –– while the Furious Five have a little more to say now (especially Rogen’s Mantis), new additions like Master Storming Ox (voiced by Dennis Haysbert) and Master Croc (voiced by Jean-Claude Van Damme –– Jean-Claude Van Damme!) don’t get much to say. It’s little faults like that that keep this sequel from triumphing. It’s a definite improvement on the original, and a third episode might actually make the franchise a classic.
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Starring Johnny Depp, Penélope Cruz, Geoffrey Rush, and Ian McShane. Directed by Rob Marshall. Written by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. Rated PG-13.
The Hangover Part II
Starring Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, and Zach Galifianakis. Directed by Todd Phillips. Written by Craig Mazin, Scot Armstrong, and Todd Phillips. Rated R.
Kung Fu Panda 2
Voices by Jack Black, Gary Oldman, and Dustin Hoffman. Directed by Jennifer Yuh. Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Rated PG.