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Posts in Category: Sequelitis

Road House 2: Last Call (2006)

Making a good sequel—particularly one that contains none of the actors, characters, or locations from the original film—requires one thing above all else: getting the tone right. Anybody sitting down to watch Road House 2: Last Call will expect a campy, fun action movie that takes place in the same outsized world of legendary coolers, over-tanned villains, and internal strife revolving around torn-out throats. What they get is a standard dull DTV action film whose only ties to the original film are repeated quotes of its memorable dialogue.

Johnathon Schaech stars as Shane Tanner, moderately sleazy DEA agent and son of Dalton, Patrick Swayze’s character in the first film. Shane heads to Louisiana when he gets word that his uncle, Nate (Will Patton), has been hospitalized after a beating by a group of drug dealers because he won’t sell his bar. I will admit that pretty much the only good thing about this movie is the bar, which sits on the edge of a lake and simply looks great. I don’t know if they shot the film in a real bar or built one for the production, but whatever the case, it looks better than anything else in this movie.

With Nate hospitalized, Shane decides to take over the bar’s day-to-day operations until he can unravel a coke-smuggling/selling conspiracy that involves Wild Bill (Jake Busey). The small Louisiana town is roughly the halfway point between Miami and Texas, which makes it a great way station for a smuggling operation from Mexico. The film spends much less time at the bar than a film called Road House 2: Last Call should, concentrating instead on the cocaine material and the blossoming romance between Shane and Beau (Ellen Hollman), a nice but mildly trampy local teacher who’s conveniently ex-military. Eventually, Shane learns Wild Bill had some responsibility in the death of Dalton, which makes it personal. Violence ensues.

I don’t want to turn this review into a list of reasons why the original Road House is so amazing, but because the sequel gets pretty much everything wrong, I feel like a few comparisons need to be made. In the first place, the original film made an oddly low-stakes conflict into the stuff of heightened melodrama and over-the-top action. Ben Gazzara did not play an exceptionally well-tanned drug kingpin or Mafioso or anything else. He played a local businessman interested in a small-town monopoly. That’s it. The story wasn’t even slightly complicated, and it spent 60-70% of its time at the titular Double Deuce road house. The sequel’s decision to turn this into a standard drug-smuggling story (with a few tacked-on references to Wild Bill as Dalton’s murderer to create a tenuous, puerile tie to the original), ironically, makes everything routine. The fact that Gazzara would blow up a man’s auto-parts store because he won’t sell out is mind-blowingly silly; the fact that coke smugglers will kill to protect their operation is not.

I guess I just can’t figure out why anyone would want to pay homage to a gloriously over-the-top action film without really understanding what made the original so entertaining. Would anyone really watch it and say, “You know what this needs? Cocaine in front of the camera instead of just behind it”?

I might be alone in wanting to have fun when I watch an action movie. They’re escapist drivel, and that’s exactly what I’m looking for. I don’t want a brooding, Law Abiding Citizen-esque study of a man who doesn’t want to kill but simply has no other choice. The problem with recent action movies is that, from a narrative standpoint, they’re exactly as stupid as the ones from the ’80s and ’90s—but the people making them think making the protagonist a reluctant, glowering sourpuss makes the movies deep and compelling. Instead, they simply make them boring.

Shane Tanner isn’t always a hulking sourpuss, but he’s also not nearly as fun as Dalton in the original. Patrick Swayze had an indefinable energy that allowed him to play everything to the over-the-top fullest. In Joel Silver’s candy-coated action universe, Swayze stood out as a man of absolute, stone-faced seriousness. Instead of smartass one-liners, he had pop-philosophy monologues. However, the films themselves didn’t adopt his grave tone. In fact, Road House used his unflappable charisma to its advantage. Bruce Willis, Arnold Schwarzenegger, or Sylvester Stallone could not possibly work as the ultimate cooler. In the cartoon world of the original film, you could believe Swayze as the emotionless bouncer to end all bouncers—a man who wouldn’t let women, drugs, and money distract him from his true purpose in life: allowing people have a good time at rowdy bars.

The same can’t be said for Schaech. The opening scene seems to exist to paint Shane Turner with the same brush as his “father.” An undercover DEA agent at a strip club, Shane spends some post-arrest time receiving a lap dance from another undercover DEA agent. Although he turns down her explicit request for sex, his leering response to the lap dance and obvious disappointment that he can’t flip her over and do his thing (seemingly because he received an emergency phone call about Nate, not because he’s too zen to require such animal pleasures) set him apart from Dalton rather than showing the similarities. When he lists Dalton’s rules to the workers at Nate’s bar, Shane seems sort of amused (and so do his employees) instead of absolutely committed to what amounts to the Ten Commandments for bouncers and barbacks.

It obviously doesn’t hold a candle to the original, but why does it even try? The connections to the first film are thinner than cheesecloth, and it’s sort of pathetic to ride another film’s coattails just to make a quick buck on name recognition.

Looking at it on its own terms, though, the film still doesn’t hold up. It takes the most generic possible approaches to the drug trade (angry, racist white men working for disrespectful Latinos), Louisiana culture (everyone unnecessarily rides fan boats), romance (Beau won’t tell Shane her name, then starts quietly stalking him to show she not-so-secretly wants him), and action (I defy you to find a single moment of action in this film that you haven’t seen in a better film). The acting ranges from mediocre to hammy, the leaden tone and sloppy action suggest a limited future for director Scott Ziehl, and the plot twists aren’t so much telegraphed by the movie itself as by the thousands of movies just like it.

Even if it spent enough time in the bar to earn its status as a Road House sequel, it would still qualify as the most generic of DTV action vehicles—a film that would be quickly forgotten were it not for needlessly co-opting the Road House name.

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Save the Last Dance 2 (2006)

The first Save the Last Dance may not have been a masterpiece, but it did two things exceptionally well. It took the tropes of a stale, cliché-ridden genre and turned it into a thoughtful, character-driven drama. It also allowed the characters to learn from each other, rather than having one character serve as the driving force for change. When Derek abandons his gangsta thug friends to arrive at Lucy’s Juilliard audition at just the right moment, audiences could breathe a sigh of relief. It seemed like these two crazy kids were going to make it, and what’s more—we wanted them to make it.

Save the Last Dance 2 starts off on the absolute wrong foot. In an opening sequence that combines a weird documentary-style interview with our new Lucy (Izabella Miko) with even weirder (and strangely inept) chromakey to show Lucy dancing over colorful yet silly imagery matching whatever topic she’s discussing in the interview, she announces that she and Derek split up almost immediately after the events of the last film, because of the long-distance relationship problems (and because she needs to meet a new love interest at Juilliard).

Though made five years after the first film, the sequel picks up with Lucy arriving at Juilliard for a heaping helping of Fame-like good times and hard work. She meets her wacky roommate, a Texan acting student named Zoe (Aubrey Dollar), who serves no other purpose than comic relief (on the plus side, Dollar actually is pretty funny). She meets her mentor, Katrina (Maria Brooks), a seeming ice princess who actually does look out for Lucy’s best interests—until their patrician ballet teacher (Jacqueline Bisset) starts to take Lucy more seriously than Katrina.

During a weird scene, new love interest Miles (Columbus Short) predicts Lucy is a trombonist and is not pleased when she tells him she dances. This artificial conflict is extended when Lucy learns Miles has taken over her “Introduction to Hip-Hop Theory” class. While not an official instructor, he was hand-picked to teach the class during the absence of the usual professor. If you’re wondering why this revelation angers Lucy, you’re not alone. But, hey, romantic movies need conflict, so let’s roll with it, shall we?

Miles collects sounds like John Travolta in Blow Out in the pursuit of what the movie wants us to believe are riveting aural collages, when in reality they merely sound like generic hip-hop. He talks a lot about music theory and music history, and although it impresses Lucy, it comes off like pretentious posturing in light of the Tesh-esque music he creates. At any rate, when Miles sees Lucy bust her fresh moves at a local club, he becomes entranced. He spends the bulk of the movie trying to convince her to blow off her studies to work with him on goofy performance-art installations, dancing to his undanceable (Lucy’s word) music. Lucy’s torn between the man she’s falling in love with and the opportunity to dance the lead in Giselle. If you can’t predict the breakup and get-back-together, you’ve never seen a teen dance film.

I know part of the problem stems from my enjoyment of the original film, but wouldn’t anyone seeking out Save the Last Dance 2 feel the same way? The film’s central conflict—Lucy having to choose between a boyfriend and the education she’s worked her whole life to get—could have worked just as easily with Derek in tow, moving with Lucy to New York and struggling to do something with his life while he watches the woman he loves get a bunch of opportunities he’d love to have. Our advance knowledge of the way the relationship developed in the first film could only enhance the conflicts in the second. Although played well by Short, the Miles character just doesn’t have the same resonance.

Keep in mind that I gave favorable reviews to both Breakin’ movies. I can appreciate a silly, energetic dance film when I see one and embrace incomprehensible plotting, forced conflict, and all manner of other bad drama if the film keeps a light tone and has good dance sequences. Save the Last Dance 2 has it half-right—veteran TV director David Petrarca captures the right tone, but the dance sequences feature distractingly poor choreography that Petrarca tries to mask with rapid-fire, Michael Bay-style editing. It’s hard to tell the choreography’s no good if you can’t tell what the hell is going on, but that doesn’t make the dancing any more engaging to look at. I could easily forgive the film’s myriad problems if not for this unforgivable sin, a dance film with no dancing worth watching.

Though Miko dances well (bad choreography or not), her acting chops leave a bit to be desired, especially following Julia Stiles. In a situation where nobody in the film can act (as in the aforementioned Breakin’ films), this might be easier to overlook. However, alongside the excellent Short, Bisset, and Brooks, and the funny presence of Dollar and Ian Brennan (as Miles’s DJ friend), Miko doesn’t hold her own anywhere but on the dance floor. Sadly, she doesn’t even look like she’s enjoying herself, focusing too intently on the dancing instead of just having a good time. I don’t disagree with Gene Kelly’s belief that seeing a dancer work his or her ass off will impress the audience more than gliding effortlessly across a ballroom, but Miko’s consternation doesn’t match the genial tone of the film—and even Kelly and the dancers he directed imbued a playful sense of fun on the hard work.

I had some hope that maybe Save the Last Dance 2 would have some of the same nice, character-driven storytelling of the first film. The opening seconds dashed that hope but replaced it with a new hope—that it’d be an absurd heir apparent to the Breakin’ films. It has some goofy moments and fun performances, but I can’t consider it anything but a disappointment.

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30 Days of Night: Dark Days (2010)

The first 30 Days of Night had a brilliant premise marred by the world’s stupidest characters. It has some effective scare moments and a handful of good scenes, but overall, I just can’t forgive the characters’ sheer idiocy (and the screenplay’s refusal to show the filmmakers realize the characters are behaving foolishly). It’s the kind of film founded on the great notion that vampires head up to Alaska so they can feed for 30 days, uninterrupted by the sunlight, which is immediately undermined by the vampires blowing their wad on the first night. (Even that wouldn’t be such a huge issue if not for the fact that the film’s vampire lore suggests they need to feed regularly and are pretty desperate toward the end of the 30 days.) That’s not even getting into the problem of the main character injecting himself with vampire blood—thus dooming himself to death by vampirization—so he can acquire the strength to fight them mere hours before the sun will come up and the vamps will clear out.

To its credit, 30 Days of Night: Dark Days starts with another brilliant premise to exploit—the polar (pun intended) opposite of the first film. Instead of setting the film in a land of eternal darkness, the filmmakers move the location to sunny Los Angeles. What a great idea—putting the vampires on the defensive instead of the offensive, forcing them into hiding in much the same way humans were forced into hiding in the first film. Considering it follows a ragtag group of vampire hunters, this could have been a great opportunity to explore a moral gray area—have the hunters leveled the playing field by forcing all the vampires to clump together in easily destroyed nests, or have they turned into the same sort of monsters? Do the filmmakers make clever use of this incongruous setting? Nope! The vast majority of this film takes place entirely at night, and with the exception of an unintentionally comical scene in which vampires (looking like pale extras from The Matrix) are flushed out using high-intensity UV lamps, there’s not a single reference to the sun.

Kiele Sanchez takes over Melissa George’s role, Stella Oleson. For those who don’t recall the grim yet dumb conclusion of the first film, she and husband Eben (played in that film by Josh Hartnett) stand on the edge of a cliff, weepy and huggy as the sun comes up and his body starts to burn to a crisp. Some time later, Stella arrives in Los Angeles to give a lecture telling the truth of what happened in Barrow, Alaska. For some reason, the audience laughs when she mentions vampires, and Stella mentions it’s not the first time. Not to get nitpicky, but wouldn’t you expect the audience to consist mainly of tinfoil hat wearing Art Bell fans, clutching copies of The Catcher in the Rye while muttering about the umbrella man near the grassy knoll? On the plus side, this sets a tone of dumbness that matches the first film.

In another goofy move, it initially seems like the lecture gets her on the radar of a team of vampire hunters, but it turns out she’s being led around the country by a mystery man known only as Dane, and the hunters work for Dane and were told to find her. There’s Paul (Rhys Coiro), the studly pseudo-love interest; Todd (Harold Perrineau), the token black guy (and the first to die, because this is a film that leaves no cliché unused); and Amber (Diora Baird), the inexplicably jealous female hunter. They take her to finally meet Dane (Ben Cotton), and she’s shocked to find he’s a vampire himself. Apparently unfamiliar with any of the modern vampire lore permeating the spectrum of popular culture, the film acts like refrigerated blood packs and Dane’s cabinet full of vampire-killing weapons are two of the cleverest ideas in the world. And, you know, they were pretty clever ten years ago on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, but they’re kind of old hat at this point.

Dane has a plan for them to find and kill Lilith (Mia Kirshner), the vampire queen. He theorizes that once she’s gone, the rest will fall into chaos and end up dead. This is mostly an excuse for action sequences that don’t come close to matching the inventiveness of the not-particularly-inventive first film, but the story does take a mildly interesting turn when Stella learns about a possible “cure” for vampirism and becomes moderately obsessed with the possibilities for Eben. (Even though we’re led to believe Eben turns to ash at the end of the first one, this film “retcons” that to show that only his skin turns to ash, and Stella has buried the rest of his vampire body.) Unfortunately, this intriguing development sets up the worst twist ending since Signs.

Director/co-writer Ben Ketai, scripting with 30 Days comics co-creator Steve Niles, has effectively made a film for nobody. Ostensibly, it should have a built-in audience from the first film, but that was a straightforward horror-action piece. At times, Dark Days seems to want to follow suit—particularly when it attempts to raise the first film’s stakes by introducing Lilith as a baddie that makes the first film’s Marlow look tame in comparison—but it spends too much time as a moody, broody downer. Characters answer questions with pseudo-philosophical questions, while Stella stares grimly into the middle distance. Typical of low-budget direct-to-video fare, it’s one of those action movies that spends more time with characters talking about what they’re going to do than showing them do it (because everything invariably goes wrong within the first millisecond of putting the long-winded plan into effect).

The one thing the film has going for it is Stella, our only connection to the first film. For all its faults, the relationship between Eben and Stella in the first film was well-rendered and played well by Hartnett and George. Although watching Stella’s grief (which looks a lot like disaffected sulking) is not terribly compelling, the possibility of bringing him back sparks life into both the movie and, one assumes, audience members eager to see their reunion.

That’s what makes the twist ending such an embarrassment. I won’t give it away, but let’s just say the “cure” doesn’t quite work as advertised, and the final shot suggests neither of them will have a happy ending. It’s the sort of forced nihilism that works in torture porn, but that’s not what the first film is, and it’s not what 95% of this sequel is. It’s the sort of poorly thought out ending designed to blow minds rather than to satisfy audiences. Betraying the only thing the movie has going for it is not the way to end things, especially when the only people likely to check out this sequel are fans of the first one. Maybe I’m naïve to suggest the fans of the first film didn’t spend its entire runtime cheering for the vampires to win, no matter how stupid Eben and Stella revealed themselves to be.

The only positive I can draw from this film is that it has above-average production values for both DTV sequels and DTV horror. I’m not sure if this means the production team worked miracles on a shoestring budget, or if it was originally intended as a theatrical release. Whatever the case, it looks good. Unfortunately, it looks good while being exceptionally bad.

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Single White Female 2: The Psycho (2005)

I admit recommending Single White Female 2: The Psycho is a tough sell. A direct-to-video sequel whose biggest name (Brooke Burns) went from Baywatch to reality game-show host doesn’t seem like the sort of movie any rational person would want to watch. It has the aesthetic, soundtrack, and acting caliber of softcore porn, although without the rampant nudity. It’s less a sequel than a knockoff that may have become a sequel either to avoid litigation or to capitalize on its very derivativeness. In short, it’s not really a good movie. However, the film’s story suffers from the same sort of schizophrenia as its chief villain, which makes it one of the most purely entertaining direct-to-video sequels I’ve ever seen. (Again, don’t misconstrue narrative craziness as high quality—you should know what you’re getting into and whether or not you’ll want to endure it.)

The film takes its time setting up the narrative dominoes, to the extent that the titular single white female doesn’t even show up until the second act. At the outset, it seems like a fairly innocuous story of two roommates competing for a promotion. They’re both shark-like, sociopathic publicists, so it’s hard to know who to root for at first. Holly (Kristen Miller) seems like the better person merely because, rather than seducing potential clients with one-night stands, she seduces one with a long-term relationship. She’s landed a big fish—restaurateur David Kray (Todd Babcock)—as her boyfriend, and that helps her land him as a client, leaving her roommate/rival, Jan (Burns) in the cold.

Jan gets her revenge, though. Holly’s at the point of the relationship where she might actually tell David she loves him, but before she can, Jan tells her she must go to Chicago to take care of some emergency business. Somehow, Holly falls for that, and while she’s in Chicago wondering why her hotel reservation doesn’t exist, Jan stays home to seduce David. Holly returns to the apartment just in time to catch David trying to sneak away.

After throwing various tchotchkes at her former best friend and boyfriend, Holly decides to find a new apartment. She eventually ends up rooming with Tess (Allison Lange), a demure nurse who seems much less demanding than other prospective roommates. A friendship quickly blossoms, especially after Holly makes Tess realize how smokin’ hot she is. After running afoul of Jan and several of Holly’s other colleagues, Tess tries to make Holly realize she has surrounded herself with awful, deceptive, manipulative people. Tess fails to realize Holly is one of them, a development that could have made the film more interesting, but the screenwriters generally fail to realize Holly’s skills at manipulation and vicious competitive streak aren’t much better than Jan’s.

Luckily, the film has intrigue to spare. Once Tess realizes Holly’s friends are the problem in her life, she takes the With a Friend Like Harry tack of killing off anyone she sees as interfering with Holly’s happiness. Unlike the first film, Tess has no real interest in assuming Holly’s identity. She wants to emulate her (by dyeing her hair and “borrowing” her clothes), but in a sort of Sapphic sisterhood way. The film starts to go off the rails right around the time a suspicious Holly tails Tess to an S&M club and watches in horror as Tess—chained to a wrought-iron structure—demands to be choked by a masked man. It fully goes off the rails when Tess is revealed as an Angel of Death, mercy-killing patients for reasons the film eventually explains. All of this builds to an ending so indescribably ludicrous, it must be seen to be believed. I will tantalize you with the following facts: it involves mad cow disease and ghosts. I am not making that up, I swear.

The acting is weak, even for direct-to-video fare, but Lange does a convincing job of playing a character simultaneously meek and murderous, sweet and deranged. She doesn’t pull the same 180-degree turns as the plot, creating a consistent character whose complex emotional core almost singlehandedly makes the film watchable. The same can’t be said for Miller, whose expressive eyes do little to compensate for poor line readings and apparent boredom. She’s very attractive, and she spends about 60% of the movie in bras and bustiers, but she should serve as the emotional anchor of the film. Isn’t Brooke Burns there for the gratuitous T&A? (Ironically, Burns is the only female character who doesn’t appear in her underwear.) Strangely, Burns plays bitchy Jan with hilarious relish, helping Lange to prop up the film under the sagging weight of Miller’s bland performance.

Behind the camera, the film has an unusual pedigree. Two of its writers—Andy Hurst and Ross Helford—previously teamed on the two DTV Wild Things sequels, among other films (most also produced by Marc Bienstock). Director Keith Samples produced a mixed bag of bona fide films, from the Olsen twins vehicle It Takes Two to the brutal satire Election (peppered with films like Kingpin, The Evening Star, and Hard Eight), before moving on to directing, mostly in television. His direction here has the rushed, workmanlike feel of TV, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing—undoubtedly, this film had a low budget and a quick shooting schedule. The fact that it’s coherent means Samples is at least competent, but the first film (directed and produced by Barfly‘s Barbet Schroeder) had a great deal of cinematic flair that this film simply lacks. Even if Samples doesn’t do anything wrong, necessarily, a director like Schroeder would have likely brought more panache to the film’s myriad batshit-crazy twists.

Single White Female 2: The Psycho is certainly a flawed film, but by gum, it’s quite a fun roller-coaster ride. I’d have a better time at the movies if more of them were as charmingly nuts as this one.

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WarGames: The Dead Code (2008)

I consider the first WarGames to be the ultimate nerd movie. Nothing (other than the short-lived Freaks & Geeks TV series) has as pitch-perfect a portrayal of a nerd. David Lightman was a socially awkward smartass stunted by an educational system that bored him and apathetic parents. He retreated to computers in the days before everyone had one on their desktop, and he taught himself how to use them. Part of this characterization comes from the writers’ desire to show how a seemingly normal, if nerdy, kid could be mistaken for a terrorist (drawing parallels between the isolation felt by a nerd and the isolation felt by a potential extremist whack-job). Part of it comes from good writing and casting, plain and simple. It’s kind of hard to believe the same actor who played the smarmy, charismatic Ferris Bueller could pull off the nerd character, but maybe Matthew Broderick’s inherent charm helps Lightman rise above the stereotype he could have easily been.

But it’s not just about the central character. WarGames plunges Lightman into a story any budding, antiauthoritarian hacker nerd only wishes would happen to them. After hacking into what he thinks is an innocuous gaming company’s development system, he plays an innocent game of Global Thermonuclear War, impresses a hot chick with his ability to hack into an airline and create reservations for two to Paris, and suddenly he’s at the center of a terrorist investigation that may just cause nuclear annihilation.

I love WarGames, and to be honest, I sort of looked forward to its direct-to-video sequel. Maybe that was my mistake. In a pop-culture landscape increasingly dominated by annoying “geek chic”—real nerds will tell you there’s nothing cool about being a geek; it’s all about trying to hide vital components of your being to avoid humiliation, until you find enough people who share your interests to feel vaguely less embarrassed—it could have served up a refreshing antidote, showing nerds as they really are. Not fat, slovenly, Asperger’s types living in their parents’ basements, but also not super-cool guys wearing vintage Atari T-shirts and talking about Star Wars—just mildly socially awkward people caught in the unfortunate crossfire of utter fascination and mild embarrassment of said fascination with computers, role-playing games, fantasy novels, and the complete works of Monty Python.

To my surprise and initial joy, WarGames: The Dead Code does start out getting things mostly right. Will Farmer (Matt Lanter) is the heir apparent to David Lightman—socially awkward, obsessed with massive multiplayer online role-playing games, unchallenged by his high school curriculum, inexplicably good-looking. He has a crush on Annie (Amanda Walsh), a cute girl in his computer science class who undergoes a frustrating metamorphosis from equally intelligent to rube-like (because, at a certain point in the film, she’s the only one around to ask questions vital to the audience understanding the plot). Seeking to spend more time with her, Will begs his ailing mother (Susan Glover) to lend him $550 so he can go on a class trip to an international chess championship in Montreal. She both doesn’t have the money and doesn’t want her son to go off on a trip largely unchaperoned, so strikes a deal she knows he’ll never live up to: If he can raise the money himself, he can go.

Little does she know, Will has complete access to his conveniently Middle Eastern neighbor’s bank account. He’s a doddering old man who doesn’t understand technology, and he trusts Will enough to fix things to give him full access. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know Will has a devil on his shoulder in the form of Dennis (Nicolas Wright), who convinces Will to “borrow” money from his neighbor’s bank account, place a bet on a new online gaming platform called RIPLEY and double his money instantly. That way, he can return what he “borrowed” and withdraw his winnings without his neighbor ever knowing. But as soon as Will leaves the room, Dennis appends an extra zero to the bet.

The game challenges Will to plan and execute a terrorist attack on his hometown of Philadelphia. He has twenty minutes to decimate the city, and with each success Will has in the game, the computer removes an advantage (either a weapon or defense mechanism) to make it more difficult. By the skin of his teeth, Will wins the game. At 5-to-1 odds, that’s more than $20,000 (minus what he must repay the neighbor).

This gets Will on the creators’ radar. Unlucky for him, the creators work for the Pentagon. RIPLEY is an elaborate government computer designed to use player feedback to analyze human response to an attack. It’s also designed to suss out potential terrorists. Just like David Lightman, Will is a perfect storm of terrorist possibility—the fact that he wins the game, the fact that he’s using money from a Syrian bank account to place his bet, and the fact that he immediately plans a trip to Montreal make him a pretty good candidate even before the psychological profile of his antisocial ways.

Once in Montreal, Will does get to spend more time with Annie—primarily because her own crush causes her to sidle up next to him, just in time for him to spend the rest of the movie on the run. What follows is pretty much the same as the first movie, only with more car chases and pretty computer graphics. Oh yeah, and less imagination or interest in character above plot.

Here’s a simple illustration of why WarGames: The Dead Code is so vastly inferior to its predecessor. In the first film, Lightman desperately wants to try the new games he’s seen advertised in a magazine. With the help of some fellow hacker nerds (played by the great character actor Maury Chaykin and the not-so-great walking stereotype Eddie Deezen), Lightman realizes the best way to find the backdoor into the password-protected system is to start researching everything about the company, its products, its employees, et cetera. This leads to the discovery of Stephen Falken and John McKittrick, who will become pivotal characters later in the film. The introduction to these characters, exposition, and development feels exceptionally natural because Lightman’s goal at this point is not to find Stephen Falken—it’s to break into a computer system by finding out about a presumed-dead computer programmer and gaming theorist.

Compare that to similar developments in the sequel. Stephen Falken (Gary Reineke, taking over for John Wood), who has faked his death once again, simply walks up to Will and Annie, explains who he is and what RIPLEY is, and leads both characters on the hunt for WOPR, the system from the first film. One of the things that makes WarGames such a great nerd movie is its willingness to depict the often tedious life of the obsessive. We now live in a world where Google makes that tediousness largely obsolete, but even so, this sequel simply hands vital information to Will on a silver platter. Neither he nor Annie need to prove their geek bona fides by figuring anything out themselves. The first film is nothing but Lightman using his mind—figuring out how to hack the system, figuring out how to escape from NORAD, figuring out how to break through to the seemingly insane Falken, and finally, figuring out how to get WOPR to stop. The sequel lacks this quality entirely, to its great detriment.

To be fair, though, the movie is passable (almost good) until Falken shows up. From that point, it’s pretty much a dumbed-down remake of the first film. Director Stuart Gillard tosses in numerous references to the original film (including the presence of WOPR, who must “fight” RIPLEY at a certain point) that come across more like cheap nostalgia than worthwhile homage. Maybe that’s because it literally steals the best moments of the first film, unabashedly and without commentary.

On the plus side, the actors acquit themselves reasonably well. Lanter is blandly fine, but he’s certainly no Matthew Broderick. Despite the awful writing for her character, Walsh manages to breathe some life into Annie, making her personality seem mildly less inconsistent. However, she mostly lacks the charm and wit she displayed on the short-lived sitcom Sons and Daughters (with one exception, in which she attempts to distract a suave computer guru by affecting an amusing dumb-girl persona). Colm Feore plays a flamboyant variation on the McKittrick character that is both hilarious and obnoxious. On one hand, I applaud Feore’s willingness to do pretty much any movie offered to him, but it bothers me because he’s capable of so much more than something like this. The biggest surprise to me was nerd-bait “get” Claudia Black (legendary as Aeryn Sun on Farscape), who voices RIPLEY without a trace of her Australian accent. I can’t figure out the logic in hiring someone with a distinctive voice and a large geek following, then making her sound unrecognizable. (It also disappoints me that an actress of such versatility is forced to voice an emotionless computer; Gillard doesn’t even allow her cold voice to make the proceedings vaguely creepy à la Douglas Rain in 2001: A Space Odyssey or Kevin Spacey in Moon) At least Feore, who voices WOPR (imitating the computer voice from the first film with the help of some modulation effects), has an on-camera role to justify the reason for hiring him.

I could go on for another page about why this movie’s second half fails to live up to both the promise of the first and the promise of a WarGames sequel, but I can tell by your snoring that I should wrap it up. So here’s the bottom line: WarGames: The Dead Code is an awful film. I’d say it taints the legacy of the original, but I’m one of nineteen people who know of its existence. Just take my advice and don’t rent it.

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