10 Movie Sequels That Were Surprisingly Good

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Everyone knows that most sequels are terrible, and that only a few are really good, and even those are only good because they're part of larger planned trilogies. (See, for example, The Godfather: Part II and The Empire Strikes Back.) But what about the middle ground? What about those sequels (or later entries in a series) that aren't just good, but are surprisingly good? The movies that actually beat the odds and turned out to be welcome entries in the story? There are more of these than you'd think, as long as you know where to look. They often aren't placed in the same pantheon as other film classics, but they're every bit as worth your time. Sadly, Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo didn't make the cut.

  1. Army of Darkness: "This … this is my boom-stick!" Sam Raimi's 1992 horror comedy Army of Darkness is eminently quotable and has built a sizable cult audience since its release, owing largely to the fact that it's the broadest and most accessible film in Raimi's Evil Dead series. The first two films — 1981's The Evil Dead and 1987's Evil Dead II — were far more reliant on low-budget gore and effects, and the first one's just a straight-ahead horror flick. They deal with demonic possession and an evil force that plagues and kills a group of college students. But for the third film, Raimi went a little wackier, and his experiment paid off. It's easily the funniest and most fun film in the franchise, and it cemented Bruce Campbell as a gloriously cheesy, self-aware leading man with B-movie charm and total commitment to the story. It's surprisingly good not because Raimi's bad or anything (he's actually pretty good), but because it took real skill to make a franchise's third installment such a departure from the first two and still wind up with a good product.
  2. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The first Star Trek feature film — 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture — is almost daringly boring. It runs more than two hours when it could easily be 90 minutes, and it's got all the energy and pace of a snail who isn't even thinking about crawling. The follow-up, though, was an impressively made movie that tossed out the ponderous pseudo-philosophical ramblings and opted for action, adventure, and an appropriately nostalgic tone that cast the starship Enterprise as a futuristic descendant of classic sea explorers. It also helped that, instead of the lifeless robotic antagonist of the first film, Capt. Kirk and crew went up against Khan, a psycho from the original series who was again played by Ricardo Montalban with insane glee. This was the film that proved a Star Trek story could be good, and that once freed from techno-babble and static shots, you could have some serious fun with this universe. Of course, the vibe didn't really return until the 2009 reboot of Star Trek, but still, Wrath of Khan remains a fantastic and often overlooked sequel.
  3. Aliens: Of all the films on this list, Aliens is probably the one that's usually least likely to be classified as "surprisingly good," but you have to remember that in 1986, this was still a big departure from the original film and a potential embarrassment if it wasn't done right. Writer-director James Cameron was far from the king of the world; at that point, he'd directed Piranha II: The Spawning and The Terminator. That's it. Oh yeah, he'd also chipped in on the script for Rambo: First Blood Part II. In other words, there was no way to know that Cameron's desire to continue the Alien franchise would work, especially considering he was jettisoning the original's more horror-based tone in favor of his preferred action-sci-fi shoot-'em-up. But the movie worked on every level, becoming one of the top-grossing films of the year and earning two Oscars (with five more nominations). It's a winning thriller, and it helped establish Cameron as a major director.
  4. Dawn of the Dead: Although George Romero's Dawn of the Dead is technically a sequel to Night of the Living Dead, it's got a new story and shares no settings or characters with the earlier film. It also came out 10 years after the original. While the first film was a horror classic, the 1970s saw a shift in horror films and movies in general in terms of tone. Monsters were usually demons that possessed innocent victims, and movie villains often took the form of faceless, unforgiving corporations bent on controlling the government, the economy, or the world. (See just about every Robert Redford movie from the second half of the decade.) As a result, another zombie movie could have felt like a retread. But Romero's fantastic film is instead of a gripping, bloody horror story that doubles as a satire of corporate comfort and an indictment of the belief that material possessions will save us. When zombies overrun society, a small group of survivors hole up in a shopping mall, and what starts out as a paradise eventually becomes just one more prison. It's a smart commentary on gilded cages, wrapped in a genuinely freaky horror tale.
  5. The Color of Money: The Color of Money came out 25 years after its predecessor, 1961's The Hustler, which is practically an eternity in Hollywood. The Hustler was also itself a classic, one of the many films that had made Paul Newman an icon. Tacking a sequel onto that — even one based on a novel by the author of the book that inspired the original — could be seen as nothing more than a cash-in attempt made by propping Newman next to the relatively fresh Tom Cruise. But instead, the film is a fantastic ride and a wonderfully make look at everything from the cost of success to the power of determination. It doesn't hurt at all, obviously, that director Martin Scorsese was riding a creative decade that also saw him make Raging Bull and Goodfellas. In a way, The Color of Money was almost better than it had a right to be. Newman nabbed an Oscar for his time.
  6. Toy Story 3: The Pixar Animation team started churning out instant classics in 1995 with Toy Story, and they followed that with the almost obligatory Toy Story 2 in 1999. But more than a decade went by between that film and 2010's Toy Story 3, leaving many to rightly wonder if the adventures of Buzz and Woody even needed to be revisited. Even by Pixar's admittedly high standards, this seemed to be a sure misstep, the first instance in which their instincts would lead them astray. But the film proved to be the perfect ending to the franchise, expanding on the ideas of loss and aging that were introduced in the second film and taking the characters on a journey to a new home as Andy, the boy who grew up with them, became a young man and had to move on. It wasn't just a good animated movie, or even a good Pixar movie; it was a great movie, period, and it resonated so well with audiences that it became the studio's highest-grossing release. There are moments as dark as any you'd see in a standard adult drama, and they underscore just how seriously Pixar takes its dedication to storytelling.
  7. Die Hard With a Vengeance: Although 1988's Die Hard was, by any scientific measurement, totally awesome, Die Hard 2 was pretty awful. The first sequel was directed by Renny Harlin (who would go on to make Cutthroat Island, among others) and was so full of forced references to the first film that it played like a parody instead of a sequel. However, when director John McTiernan returned for 1995's Die Hard With a Vengeance, he was able to revive the series with a nuts-and-bolts thriller that was closer to the original film in spirit and execution. Although the action expanded to cover an entire city instead just one building, the premise — crazed German holds Americans hostage — was the same, and the film also benefitted from the chemistry between Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. It's easy to overlook the film now. Its reputation isn't on par with the original, and the franchise was effectively killed with 2007's lifeless Live Free or Die Hard. But it's, well, surprisingly good. It's a tightly paced thriller that's as much mystery as action, and the effects are mostly CGI-free. If Die Hard was the peak of 1980s action, maybe Die Hard With a Vengeance did the same for the 1990s.
  8. The Road Warrior: What makes The Road Warrior
  9. qualify as "surprisingly good" is the fact that its predecessor, Mad Max, was a great movie and cult classic in its own right. George Miller's original dystopian action flick put Australia on the map in terms of film production and helped raise the profile of one young Mel Gibson. The Road Warrior is that rare sequel that's as good as the original, which is a downright shock in the film world. It runs through the same basic beats — lone man fighting off killers in a post-apocalyptic wasteland — but mixes in elements of Western stories and Seven Samurai to make a completely engaging film.
  10. Mission: Impossible III: Mission: Impossible II could have killed off the franchise in one swoop: John Woo's hyper-stylized take on the action story relied just a bit too heavily on doves flying through fire in slow-motion instead of, say, interesting spy stories or the kinds of gadgets that made Mission: Impossible what it is. Honestly, that could have been the end of things. But for the third installment, 2006's Mission: Impossible III, director J.J. Abrams took over, and he shared script credit with Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who worked with Abrams on Alias and would go on to write Star Trek for him. Because of that, the film was a leaner and more action- and character-driven piece than the previous installment, and it pumped in some energy that had been lacking a bit. It wasn't revolutionary or anything — although it's a fun experience, it won't go down as one of the best action movies of all time — but it was a surprisingly winning entry in the series, and notable for the way it brought the story back down to Earth. The film's critical and commercial success is what let them create a fourth film, set for release in December 2011.
  11. Casino Royale: The James Bond movies occupy a fuzzy zone of definition, at least as far as considering them sequels to some original story. But for the most part, the distinction works. Even though the actor playing Bond changes every few years, certain story lines and character traits are continued from film to film, making for a mostly continuous story, albeit one that defies some basic rules of the space-time continuum. Most of the Bond flicks are pretty average, too, especially the later Brosnan-era entries. But Casino Royale, from 2006, was a blast of fresh air and almost better than anyone could have expected a Bond movie to be. Daniel Craig brought a cold, menacing vibe to his portrayal of a James Bond still fresh to the job, and director Martin Campbell (who also helmed the first Brosnan Bond, GoldenEye) kept the pace chugging right along. Most Bond movies are fun but ultimately nothing to really write home about. Casino Royale, though, was a legitimately exciting action movie, and easily one of the best in the franchise's long history.
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