A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas is opening this weekend, calling attention – once again – to the old credo: that sequels suck, and threequels even moreso. But do they really? Is the latest Harold and Kumar destined for failure? We don't think so. Because we've got a list right here of twenty five movie threequels that may not have been as good as the original, but still managed to kick ass. Here, then, is the first part of CraveOnline's list of The Top 25 Movie Threequels. (Rules: Trilogies count as long as they're based on story, and not themes: for example, John Carpenter's "Apocalypse Trilogy" – The Thing, Prince of Darkness and In the Mouth of Madess – needs not apply.) Come back tomorrow to see what made our Top Ten!
25. (TIE) – ALIEN 3 (dir. David Fincher, 1992) & PREDATORS (dir. Nimrod Antal, 2010)
The two great killer alien movies – Alien and Predator – led to multiple sequels apiece, and besides Aliens, which was a classic, most of them were only pretty good at best. Alien 3 failed to expand the universe of the first two films in any meaningful way, and Predators was a pretty standard Twilight Zone conceit – a group of interesting strangers transported to a mysterious locale with no explanation – which happened to have Predators in it. Some people feel betrayed by the opening of Alien 3 in particular, what with 2/3's of the previous film's surviving cast killed off-camera between sequels, but hey, there's a reason it's #25, and sharing a slot at that. Both films were, at least in retrospect, entertaining sci-fi action movies with strong casts and a few neat notions to their credit, but while they're both fairly fun it was clear in both cases that the Alien and Predator series were basically spinning their wheels, unwilling to introduce anything particularly particularly new (hey, there's another group of Predators out there… who basically act just like the other ones… Whee…) but obviously having fun with what they already had in the toolbox.
24. DAY OF THE DEAD (dir. George A. Romero, 1985)
The third of George Romero’s now-inaccurately named “Living Dead Trilogy” is the weakest of the original three, and suffered budget cutbacks that prevented Romero from making what was originally supposed to be “the Gone with the Wind of zombie films.” The result instead was another low-budget gorefest, but also a thoughtful examination of the way that a microcosm of humanity would destroy itself under heated conditions. It also introduced the world to a new aspect of un-humanity, the zombie “Bub,” who was capable of learning how to be human again but apparently never got the chance. A missed opportunity, but still a good film.
23. RAMBO III (dir. Peter MacDonald, 1988)
By the third film in the franchise, John Rambo had gone from a tragic figure – a man so scarred by the Vietnam War that living amongst quote-unquote “peaceful” folks was now an impossibility – to a musclebound all-American hero for the Reagan era. But even so, Rambo III is still a kick-ass action movie. Once again, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) is called out of retirement, this time to aid Afghan rebels in fighting off Communist invaders from the Soviet Union and save his kidnapped former colonel, Sam Trautman (Richard Crenna) in the bargain. If you can overlook the unfortunate-in-hindsight political subtext, director Peter MacDonald made a killer, over the top action extravaganza, which once owned the Guinness World Record for “Most Violent Movie Ever Made.”
22. MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME (dirs. George Miller & George Ogilvie, 1985)
Yeah, we know, we know… “Can’t we get beyond Thunderdome?” Well, we could, if this bonkers threequel wasn’t so damned fun. Although it lacks the coherency of the original Mad Max or the adrenaline of its even-better sequel The Road Warrior, George Miller’s third film (co-directed with George Ogilvie) makes up for those losses with one incredible, bizarre idea after the next: from a villainess played by Tina Turner (of all people), to a city run on the methane from pig feces, to a civilization of children with an overdeveloped sense of mythology, Beyond Thunderdome is a mighty entertaining romp through the post-apocalyptic wasteland. The classic centerpiece: a fight to the death between Max (Mel Gibson) with the monstrous “Master Blaster” in the Thunderdome that gives the film its title. “Two men enter, one man leaves” has been a traditional fight call ever since.
21. THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS: TOKYO DRIFT (dir. Justin Lin, 2006)
Director Justin Lin’s first Fast and the Furious movie (he’s directed each of them since) was a big about-face from the previous entries in the franchise, since it pretty much forgot that any of them even existed. That turned out to be the for the best, since this “Karate Kid with a Race Car” movie was just the breath of fresh air the series needed to go on long enough to eventually reunite the original cast. But beyond that, it’s a fun, fast-paced street race movie that follows Friday Night Lights star Lucas Black on a journey to Japan, where he discovers his own formidable vehicular skills are no match for the art of “drifting,” which has taken the country by storm. Charming performances, kick-ass races and a plot that actually makes sense? That’s a rare thing for this kind of threequel.
20. STEP UP 3D (dir. Jon Chu, 2010)
We expect to get some heat for this, but there’s no denying that Jon Chu’s Step Up 3D is, at the very least, the best film in the admittedly silly Step Up franchise. But more than that, it’s actually a good film, combining the underdog dance genre with – of all things – superhero story tropes to create an unusual, pervasively imaginative concoction of pop-and-lock action sequences with a likable, diverse cast of characters. Moose (Adam G. Sevani) graduates from supporting character in Step Up 2 The Streets to a full-blown lead actor as a young dancer who moves to New York, battles a samurai, and is then thrown into an over the top world of crazy dance fighting, espionage and danger rooms designed to develop his fancy footwork, all while keeping his secret identity from his girl next door love interest. Featuring bravura choreography, lovable heroes and even some pretty fine 3D, Step Up 3D has all the right moves.
19. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET III: DREAM WARRIORS (dir. Chuck Russell, 1987)
Wes Craven returned the franchise he created by contributing the story to A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, and despite a string of mostly successful sequels it’s one of the best stories in the lot. Dream Warriors decided that it was finally time for Freddy Krueger’s victims to fight back, leading the sole survivor of the first film, Nancy Thompson (Heather Langenkamp) to return as a psychologist teaching the latest crop of nightmare-sufferers to find their “dream powers” and kick that homicidal trickster’s ass. Wonderful set pieces, like a truly trippy giant snake with Krueger’s face, and a game cast consisting of then-relative-unknowns Patricia Arquette and Laurence Fishburne make for the most likable group of characters the franchise ever had since the first one. Clever, creative and wildly entertaining stuff.
18. THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNETS’ NEST (dir. Daniel Alfredson, 2009)
David Fincher’s remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is all set to wow audiences this Christmas, but if they can’t wait that long there’s an entire movie trilogy waiting for them at their local video store. And surprisingly, they’re all pretty good. The original The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the best, and The Girl Who Played with Fire is fun despite getting bogged down in too many conspiracies, but The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is a terrific closer to the series. Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace) has been incarcerated after the events of the previous film, making her an easy target for her many enemies, and perhaps doomed to be unjustly institutionalized by her former rapist. So it’s up to her frequent cohort Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) to save the day without her for a change, finally putting together all the pieces of the puzzle from the previous two films. The highlight comes in Salander’s trial, in which she finally reveals herself to the world like a gothed up peacock, sporting cinema’s best Mohawk ever in a potentially final act of defiance.
17. ROCKY III (dir. Sylvester Stallone, 1982)
Sylvester Stallone makes his second (and final) appearance on our list with Rocky III, the last good film in the Rocky franchise until Stallone concluded it (we assume) with Rocky Balboa in 2006. The third time out, Rocky Balboa doesn’t start the film as the underdog. In fact, the new champion has gone so soft that he’s easily beaten by young, upstart boxer Clubber Lang, played by 1980s icon Mr. T in his film debut. After the death of his former mentor he’s forced to turn to his old nemesis Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) for guidance, creating an iconic “bromance” for the ages, and culminating once again a grand fight sequence that once again proves Rocky to be the greatest boxer of the age. The Rocky movies started to get a little hokey here, but if Rocky III had been the last film in the series it would have been a fine send-off to a classic franchise.
16. NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION (dir. Jeremiah S. Chechik, 1989)
Not too many comedies made our list of great movie threequels, largely because – like horror movies (not many of them either) – they don’t get any better as they become more familiar. But National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is a wonderful exception, taking the Griswold family out of their adventurous trips across the world for “a good, old-fashioned family Christmas.” Good, that is, until everything goes wrong in the most spectacular ways possible. From an ill-fated turkey dinner to a blinding Christmas light display that drains a nuclear power plant, watching Chase trying desperately to keep his cool as the pressure mounts is like watching a comedy time bomb. And boy, does it go off.
15. CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER (dir. Phillip Noyce, 1994)
The third film to feature Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, and the second to star Harrison Ford after Alec Baldwin somewhat inexplicably left the franchise, finds the CIA analyst swept up in international espionage when he uncovers a covert war being fought between the American government and a Columbian drug cartel. The plot is a little more complicated this time out, but the action is explosive and the final confrontation between Ryan and the President, who foolishly thinks a man like Jack Ryan can be bought off, ends in a spectacular explosion of wills. A great, smart action movie.
14. THE EXORCIST III (dir. William Peter Blatty, 1991)
The original writer of The Exorcist takes a turn behind the camera for one of the most underrated threequels of all time. Featuring a truly incredible cast that includes George C. Scott and Brad Dourif, The Exorcist III follows a homicide detective (Scott) on the trail of a murderer whose crimes are thoroughly inexplicable. We never see them on screen, which makes it all the creepier, but the aftermaths are hard to forget: like a victim whose blood has been completely drained and left beside their corpse in hundreds of tidy little cups. Blatty has a bizarre ear for dialogue (Scott has a monologue about carp that’s as unexpected as it is brilliant) and a truly uncanny knack for scares, like a extended shot of a lonely hallway that ends in utter terror. Only a tacked on ending with an actual exorcism (there wasn’t originally supposed to be one in the film) keeps The Exorcist III out of our top ten.
13. ARMY OF DARKNESS (dir. Sam Raimi, 1992)
Sam Raimi’s third and apparently final film in the Evil Dead series finally abandoned all aspirations towards actual horror and focused instead on being a laugh-out-loud action-comedy with horror elements. Bruce Campbell again reprises his role of Ash (house wares), a poor but surprisingly muscley bastard who winds up in the Middle Ages after the events of The Evil Dead 2, and has to save King Arthur’s castle from an army of… well, darkness. Raimi’s having the time of his life torturing Campbell here, as he fends off a militia of tiny Bruce clones who tie him down Gulliver-style and ultimately swordfights an evil version of himself to death. But it’s the one-liners that everyone remembers the most: “Gimme some sugar baby,” “This is my boomstick” and “Good… Bad… I’m the guy with the gun” immediately entered the macho movie canon, and they’ve stayed classics ever since. From zero to hero, Army of Darkness turned Ash into a genre icon.
12. DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE (dir. John McTiernan, 1995)
Director John McTiernan returned to Die Hard series with 1995’s Die Hard with a Vengeance, still the best sequel in the franchise. The reasons are almost too numerable to mention, from a concept that doesn’t fall into the “Die Hard in a Blank” category – a mad bomber with a grudge is terrorizing New York City – to a series of crazy action sequences including a tidal wave in the city reservoir and car chase right through the middle of central park. Jeremy Irons makes a sophisticated, strong villain but honestly, a lot of the credit for Die Hard with a Vengeance’s success goes to Samuel L. Jackson as that rare action movie sidekick who actually feels like an important part of the film. He calls attention to the craziness but always takes it seriously, and has a pretty strong character arc of his own. Sequel or no sequel, Die Hard with a Vengeance is a classic action movie.
11. THE MUPPETS TAKE MANHATTAN (dir. Frank Oz, 1984)
The Muppets took New York and Staten Island too with their hilarious third film, which found Kermit, Miss Piggy and all the rest in a desperate effort to get their musical shown on Broadway. Trouble brews when Kermit, the real genius behind the production, gets amnesia and takes up a career in marketing (for some reason). There are moments of surreal brilliance everywhere, including a lovers spat interrupted by Gregory Hines (for some reason), and an on-stage wedding that suddenly turns out to be real. Alas for Kermit, the show must go on. Not just the best Muppet sequel, but – at least until the new movie comes out this month – probably the best Muppet movie period.
Come back tomorrow to find out what made our Top Ten Best Movie Threequels!