The 10 Greatest Fourth Films in Longstanding Franchises

[3 April 2012]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Damn you, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Had your meaningless mediocrity not stepped in to soil an otherwise decent trilogy (Hey! Cut the homophobic Brett Ratner a break, okay?), we’d be celebrating the brilliant X-Men: First Class right now. Indeed, it’s rare when a longstanding film franchise can keep up a level of artistic (or even commercial) viability. For the most part, the initial offering sets the tone, while the second finds a way of modifying the magic and still make it work. By number three, we are in water treading mode, the material long exhausted and the final box office tally meaning more than any creative achievement…and once you get beyond the trilogy, things rarely improve. In fact, it’s the rare fourth (or fifth, or ninth) film in a franchise that adds up to anything other than a meaningless cash grab.

That’s why fans of American Pie should enter this week’s fourth feature film installment (yes, yes, we know there have been other ‘entries’ trading on the brand for some minor direct-to-DVD effect) with the prerequisite grains of unnecessary sequel salt. After all, most of the cast have gone on to bigger—if not necessarily better—things and the entire enterprise looks like a means of making a few more bucks out of an otherwise DOA dynamic. Of course, this could be said of many misguided continuations, from George Lucas’ jerryrigging of the Indiana Jones franchise to that putrid Pirates trip across Stranger Tides. Luckily, we’ve found 10 examples where a fourth film was not only welcomed, but warranted. Given the genre they exist in and the overall flow of the series, this list reflects the possibility that awaits Stifler and the gang. It also shows the thin line between acceptable and awful, beginning with:

#10: Friday the 13: The Final Chapter

Paramount really had no intention of killing off its cash cow known as Jason Voorhees, but how do you bring the teens back to the Cineplex when you’ve already shown the mutant manchild murdering everyone in his path - and in 3D even. Well, you gather up a cast including possible potential replacement monster Corey Feldman and you amp up the gore. Tom Savini’s work here is sickening in its autopsy like authenticity, and the promised showdown between our serial slayer and our pre-pubescent protagonist is pure pop excess. Of course, Part V ruined it all.

#9: Saw IV

At the time, it had the hardest job of any film in the seemingly endless franchise. It had to maintain the mythology of the past three movies, while providing a foundation from which the series can grow and prosper. It had to give fans what made the original efforts so memorable while avoiding the feeling of “been there, done that.” So longtime director Darren Lynn Bousman and writing newcomers Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan had to reinvent the material. Surprisingly enough, they did. For all its intricacies and linkage, it remained faithful , capable of taking the concept into a new, novel territories.

#8: George A. Romero’s Land of the Dead

Fans had been waiting for Romero to return to his zombie roots since the aborted epic version of Day of the Dead became an underground military lab splatter fest. Twenty - damn, TWENTY??? - years later, the horror maestro arrived with his latest politicized take on the monster movie trope he helped invent.  This time, the haves live in a spacious city surrounded by security and a seemingly impenetrable moat/bay. Among their midst are the lower classes, desperate to eek out a living while the Establishment push them around. Oddly enough, it’s the walking dead to the rescue.

#7: Live Free or Die Hard

Okay - so it’s PG-13, meaning we don’t get hero John McClane muttering his famous curse-laden cowboy catchphrase and director Len Wiseman is not a very good presence behind the lens, but with Maggie Q and Timothy Olyphant as the main baddies and Willis in full blown bad-ass mode, we can forgive a few flaws. Even better, this was the first time that McClane’s desire to seek and destroy was wholly moderated by the means the terrorists take. It’s hard to instigate a stand-off when your opponent is somewhere else hacking into the mainframe.

#6: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

After Prisoner of Azkabahn, Harry Potter needed a transitional film. You just can’t toss aside Gary Oldman and director Alfonso Cuarón and expect the final product to be as powerful. In this case, Mike Newell compressed the massive tome into a tale of the Triwizard Tournament and our hero’s coming of age. Both are handled with heart and heft. Of course, the remaining movies in the series would reestablish some of what was done here, but for pure magic and mythmaking, this is the film that finds the soul in Harry’s search.

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#5: The Return of the Pink Panther

Let’s clarify things right up front - we are counting the crappy Alan Arkin entry as part of the number. After all, if it wasn’t for The Party (and a paltry script), Peter Sellers and Blake Edwards would have been part of the production. Instead, they waited until 1975 and then they reinvented the entire franchise as a return to the days of daunting physical comedy. With its sensational slapstick and hilarious characterizations, this is the film that many remember when they recall Inspector Clouseau and his clumsy exploits. A license for a ‘minkey’ indeed.

#4: Thunderball

He remains the ultimate spy, and with its Cold War nuclear implications this remains one of 007’s most potent narratives. Star Sean Connery would go on to star in You Only Live Twice and Diamonds are Forever before ditching the role completely (?), but here he is all swagger and sophistication. This would become one of the most popular entries in the 23 films (25 if you count the original Casino Royale and Connery’s return in Never Say Never Again) and growing cinematic dynasty of the British secret agent, and it’s not hard to see why. Our star is sensational…as is his action man counterpart.

#3: Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Brad Bird is a genius. After The Iron Giant, The Incredibles, and Ratatouille, his leap into live action was not a given. Greatness in other mediums didn’t necessarily mean greatness with actual people. Well, he pulled it off and then some, redefining what big screen action should look and feel like. With the help of Tom Cruise (who demands to do his own stunts) and some elaborate set-pieces, what could have been another “eh” installment in the franchise instead became its benchmark. Whoever takes up the directing mantle after this has their work cut out for them.

#2: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

We admit it. We are more or less cheating. If you take them chronologically, we are right on the money. If you consider them wholly based on when they were released, the rotten Phantom Menace prequel ends up at number four. We’ll take the original trip into a galaxy far, far away as our example, thank you, since it encapsulates everything that made the legend of Luke Skywalker and his interstellar pals so meaningful and memorable. Oh - and by the way, we don’t cotton to the Special Editions with all their digital tweaks. The only Wars is the ‘77 Wars, period.

#1: Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home

After the middling Motion Picture and the fantastic Wrath of Khan, the Star Trek series needed a shot in the arm - and sending Christopher Lloyd off to the Genesis Planet to try and retrieve Spock’s body before the crew of the Enterprise could was not going to work. So the creators sat down and devised a brilliant way of bringing the future back to the past. They concocted a time travel scenario involving extinct whales that saw Capt. Kirk and his crew intermingling with mid-‘80s Californians. The clash of cultures and the many jokes made at the expense of the series are what make this movie perhaps the best of all the Trek tales.

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