In theory, the sequel to a hit movie extends a tantalizing invitation: “Remember that thing you liked? There’s more of it now!” In reality, though, simply offering more of a thing is never enough. The follow-up needs to be better, or at the very least, different. There should be higher stakes, fewer lulls, and possibly a monkey. After all, if you’re not changing the game during this second time on-field, all you’re doing is running a victory lap–with a broken leg, in zero visibility, surrounded by land mines.
Take, for instance, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. (Take it in your arms and throw it into the ocean.) While the first film in the series earned widespread acclaim for its innovative visual style and achingly hip cast, not to mention $148M worldwide, the sequel was almost universally panned and it made less than a third as much money. On the other side of the spectrum, there’s 22 Jump Street, the Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum-led sequel that may have exceeded its predecessor in critical affection, and hauled in a hefty $130M more than the first one. That is a stupid amount of money! It didn’t land inside some Hollywood financier’s vault by happenstance, though. 22 Jump Street is superior to Sin City: A Dame To Kill For by almost any measure, and the differences between these films explain everything about why sequels succeed or fail in the current cinematic climate.
Nothing about the year 2012 made it particularly suited for rebooting 21 Jump Street, a show whose peak popularity occurred during the Reagan administration. The resulting effort was a surprise hit, however, and the filmmakers wasted no time reuniting for a sequel, promptly delivered two years later. By contrast, Sin City: A Dame To Kill For came out nine years after the original, owing to assorted delays and complications. In the interim, demand for the project cooled considerably. As in, almost completely. By the time the movie came out this past August, it was kind of a hardcore fans-only proposition.
Another timing issue involves the lengths of the movies themselves. Both 21 Jump Street and its sequel are 110 minutes long. The second Sin City is 20 minutes shorter than the first, which would probably work in its favor if 47 of those minutes weren’t devoted to a single, somewhat draggy vignette this time around. (The original is mostly split into 20 minute chunks, and sustains its zippy pace the entire runtime.)
22 Jump Street picks up right where 21 left off. In a fun, meta touch, it even offers a handy recap in the guise of one of those “Previously on…” bumpers that run before certain shows. And then there’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. Anyone who didn’t watch the original immediately before dipping into the new film will almost certainly be confused. Connective tissue between the two emerges eventually, but even then it doesn’t all add up. Characters who were killed in the first movie show up here, sans resurrection. As it turns out, most of the first two-thirds of A Dame To Kill For is a prequel–but by the time we get to a vignette that is definitely set after the first film, Mickey Rourke’s deceased Marv character is still around, with no explanation as to why. It’s as if the events of the first film don’t matter–which makes it difficult to swallow Marv helping Jessica Alba’s character, Nancy, avenge those events.
The first Sin City had a sprawling cast, a substantial portion of which ends up reduced to bloody pulp in a hail of gunfire. The sequel attempts to repopulate the city with similarly left field choices, but these don’t work quite as well this time around. Seeing Lady Gaga and Jeremy Piven in the graphic novel universe might take viewers right out of the movie, and over to Benecio del Toro’s house, hat and hand, to ask him about funneling some of his charisma from the first film over to the sequel. Instead of introducing new famous faces, 22 Jump Street populates its world with lesser known talent like Jillian Bell and The Lucas Brothers, who prove so arresting its impossible to leave this world without wanting to know more about them.
“Walk down the right back alley in sin city and you can find anything” is a line of dialogue from Sin City. It’s also a line from Sin City: A Dame To Kill For. In fact, a lot should be familiar about the second movie. Director Robert Rodriguez, along with co-director Frank Miller, who wrote the graphic novel series the films are based on, was smart to bring back the visual elements that worked so well the first time–the crisp black and white with occasional splashes of color, the stark, graphic novel-y framing, the moments where characters suddenly become animated silhouettes. The problem is that some of these elements seem to be thrown around haphazardly and repeatedly, taking away the impact of their original effect. That’s been one of the classic problems with sequels, anything that works the first time around is put to double-work in the second movie. (See, for example, the sizable increase in the role of Frank the Pug in Men In Black II–a little loved sequel, if ever there was one.) In the first film, Elijah Wood’s cannibal killer, Kevin, had glasses that occasionally go opaque with sinister intent. It happens again at least three times in the sequel, and with no rhyme or reason. (Jeremy Piven’s ineffectual sidekick detective also getting the white-lens treatment strips the effect of any trace of punch.)
The main thing that 22 Jump Street brings back, besides a general peppy energy, is its self-awareness. If the first film was a reboot that makes pointed fun of reboots, this one is a sequel that puts sequels in its crosshairs. Just as the first film used Nick Offerman in an expository scene to describe rebooting the “Jump Street” program as a metaphor for rebooting the Jump Street franchise, this one brings back Offerman to describe how the “Jump Street” program now has a bigger budget and higher expectations. Any movie that winks at its audience too much risks having them roll their eyes in return, but this one never overdoes it.
Of course, any sequel that reprises too many of its greatest hits would be redundant. While 22 Jump Street brings back the self-awareness of the first film and even makes some jokes about how much the beats of its central case resemble the one in the first movie, it also has some tricks up its sleeve. The reversal of status–this time, Channing Tatum is the popular student and Jonah Hill the one who gets in with the slam poetry crowd–is a pretty standard formula tweak, but it adds variety to what we’ve seen so far and allows for some unexpected character development.
The main change in Sin City: A Dame To Kill For is that instead of deriving entirely from the graphic novels, two of the vignettes were written directly for the film. These include a two-part gambling story starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and the segment where Rourke’s character helps Alba’s exact revenge. One of these stories has a traditionally happy ending and one of them does not. (We’ll leave it to you to guess which is which.) One of the more interesting aspects about the first movie was its dead-of-winter bleak worldview–several main characters meet with bad ends. At least when that happened, though, it made thematic sense. When one of the main characters dies in the sequel (or when Rourke’s Marv is unaccountably granted a second life) it feels arbitrary at best, and almost like a cheat.
The bottom line is this: a sequel has to have a reason to exist beyond the bottom line. While Frank Miller is obviously having a ball with the opportunity to bring his comic panels to movie screens, A Dame To Kill For does not seem like a labor of love for Robert Rodriguez so much as a chance to replicate his biggest moneymaker ever. This movie ultimately comes across as just more time spent in the world of Sin City, without any new tall tales to tell or interesting spikes in the water supply. Down on Jump Street, though, directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller are keeping things interesting, and proving they can give people what they want and also what they didn’t know they wanted. While the sequel to Sin City just makes viewers wish they’d watched the original instead, 22 Jump Street gives them ample reason to be excited for 23–which will probably be a trilogy-closer that sends up closing trilogies. Judging by all the fake posters during the the closing credits, Lord and Miller already have plenty of plot ideas, but one gets the sense that they won’t pursue any of them unless it feels absolutely right.