Wayback Wednesday: Sequels From Hell

I have written many reviews that have long since disappeared from the interwebs. On Wayback Wednesday, I bring them back. This week: sequels nobody asked for.

National Lampoon’s Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj
95 min., R (pervasive crude sexual content, some nudity and language)
Grade: D

Here’s a remarkable new innovation in the annals of Hollywood marketing: a sequel in which the title character is entirely absent from the movie. (If this catches on, we’re looking forward to Superman: The Triumphs of Jimmy Olsen.) It’s unclear whether original star Ryan Reynolds actually had better things to do, or if the producers decided Kal Penn of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle is more likely to sell tickets.

Reprising his role as Taj Mahal Badalandabad, Wilder’s former frat boy protégé, Penn does prove to be a more appealing lead, which is just about all this crude, cut-rate knockoff has going for it. The sequel finds Taj arriving at England’s Camford University, where his father made his reputation as a “hound doggie” in the swinging ’60s. Taj thinks he’s joining the prestigious Fox and Hounds house, but snooty ringleader Pip Everett (Daniel Percival) informs him that there’s been a clerical error.

Instead, Taj finds himself shacked up with a gang of misfits he must whip into shape as the new Cock and Bulls house, in hopes of defeating the Fox and Hounds in the competition for the coveted Hastings Cup. Along the way, Taj woos Pip’s girlfriend Charlotte (Lauren Cohan) and learns the truth about his father’s college days.

The filmmakers don’t seem to have any ambitions beyond utilizing enough slang terms for female genitalia to set a new world’s record. The movie’s few charms are overwhelmed by its sloppiness, lame gags and low-rent production values.

The Whole Ten Yards
99 min., PG-13 (sexual content, some violence and language)
Grade: D

In the good old days, a movie had to connect with an audience and achieve a certain level of popularity (and box office success) before a sequel would be considered. Now there is apparently an accounting formula at work, where the number of times the original film is shown on late night cable is multiplied by the number of DVD units sold in Taiwan, with the resulting figure used to determine whether a follow-up is commissioned. At least, that’s the only explanation I’ve been able to come up with for The Whole Ten Yards.

The original movie, 2000’s The Whole Nine Yards, wasn’t exactly a flop, but it was by no means a blockbuster, either. The sequel is downright presumptuous in assuming the audience’s familiarity with its instantly forgettable predecessor.

To refresh your memory: Jimmy the Tulip (Bruce Willis) is a retired hit man, now living a domesticated life in Mexico with his wife Jill (Amanda Peet). Jill, you may or may not recall, was a dental assistant to Nicholas ‘Oz’ Oseransky (Matthew Perry), who is now married to Jimmy’s ex-wife Cynthia (Natasha Henstridge).

When ancient criminal mastermind Lazlo Gogolak (Kevin Pollak, covered in wrinkly latex) is released from prison, he puts a vengeful scheme into motion. His goons take Cynthia hostage, in hopes of luring Jimmy out of hiding. A desperate Oz tracks Jimmy down, but finds his old pal the mass murder has apparently lost his mind. Nevertheless, the squabbling Jimmy and Jill reluctantly agree to help Oz rescue his wife.

An uneasy mix of slapstick and black comedy, The Whole Ten Yards suffers from a substantial laugh deficit. It’s not the fault of the actors; Perry’s sitcom timing is still sharp, and Peet and Pollak are both extravagantly nutty. Even Willis has his moments of comic inspiration.

The same cannot be said for screenwriter George Gallo, whose script is a paltry collection of lame one-liners, stock characters and tired sight gags. Director Howard Deutch (Grumpier Old Men) isn’t much help, either; whenever he senses the energy flagging, he decides its time for Perry to slam face-first into a hat rack or lamppost. His flat, overlit filmmaking style is made for television, which is where The Whole Ten Yards is destined to live forever, cluttering cable schedules and prompting accountants to determine if this franchise is worth extending another yard. Let’s hope for sudden death.

Hannibal Rising

Rated: R (strong grisly violent content and some language/sexual references)
Grade: D

There’s no clearer sign of an exhausted movie franchise than the re-boot. Christopher Nolan pulled off the trick with Batman Begins, which managed to tell a compelling origin story while letting us pretend the execrable Batman and Robin never happened. Indeed, the new Hannibal Lecter film has much in common with the Bat-prequel, as both feature young protagonists who are changed forever when their parents are murdered before their eyes. Hannibal Rising shows us what might have become of Bruce Wayne if he’d had a little sister. And if she’d been eaten.

The tragic tale begins in Lithuania near the end of World War II. Young Hannibal and his family have fled stately Lecter Castle and gone into hiding, but they are discovered by Nazi collaborators. Ma and Pa Lecter are killed by an air attack, leaving Hannibal and his sister Mischa at the mercy of Vladis Grutas (Rhys Ifans) and his men. There’s no food to be found, and soon the brutish soldiers turn to more drastic means of nourishment.

Eight years later, young adult Hannibal (Gaspard Ulliel) is haunted by nightmares of his sister’s fate in the stewpot. After escaping Lecter Castle (now converted into an orphanage), Hannibal makes his way to rural France, where he looks up his uncle’s widow, Lady Murasaki (Gong Li). She teaches him the ways of the samurai and he develops a taste for bloody vengeance, which attracts the attention of Inspector Pascal Popil (Dominic West).

Lecter’s development into everyone’s favorite serial killer is an exercise in cheap pop psychology and connect-the-dots backstory. Hannibal enrolls as a medical student and his appreciation for human anatomy emerges. He takes lessons from Lady Murasaki’s chef and the inner gourmand is revealed. None of this information does anything to enhance the character of Hannibal Lecter; it simply diminishes whatever remaining aura of mystery he possessed.

Once the killer inside is unleashed, Hannibal Rising descends into a high-toned slasher movie, with Lecter dispatching his childhood tormenters by increasingly grisly methods. Yet director Peter Webber (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and screenwriter Thomas Harris (adapting his own quickie cash-in novel) want to have it both ways. They revel in the blood and gore, but since Hannibal’s victims are all even worse than he is, he’s almost a vigilante hero – just a slightly more unstable Batman.

For all their faults, the last couple of Hannibal movies at least had the hammy charisma of Anthony Hopkins in their favor. Relatively unknown French actor Ulliel has a rubbery face he contorts into a variety of “I’m eeeevil” expressions, but he’s a washout otherwise. While Hopkins could shift from suave to sinister in a single sentence, Ulliel mumbles his English dialogue in a deeply accented monotone. He comes off as more of a sullen brat than a monstrous sociopath, and it’s a fatal piece of miscasting.

– Scott Von Doviak


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