Out of Sequence: The Saga of Hollywood’s Hidden Sequels

The Next Reel explores the tapestry of the world of film and uncovers the links between films that are often just under the surface. We’ve tackled the urban legends lurking around Hollywood, the official and unofficial entries into the Evil Dead franchise, the films that boomed from Night of the Living Dead, the films that fell into the melting pot to become Alien,and covered the decades long wrestling match between James Bond and James Bond in a series of often competing sequels.

That’s a whole lot of prequels and sequels and official and unofficial entries into a whole lot of sagas out there in the LA-LA land we call L.A. Stand-alone films pretend to be sequels, mockbusters pretend to be companion pieces, and all sorts of mistaken identity ripples through the world’s tattered tapestry of film. In another strange category, however, we have an entire crop of films that nobody would ever think were related in any way. This goes a bit deeper than unnumbered sequels and into production breakdowns, sold and resold scripts and complete and total directional changes that have turned orphaned films into sequels, sequels into standalone flicks and often right back again.

There are many examples of this trend, of course, but what better place to start… than Die Hard (1988)? (Note: I recently asked my editor if I could make every article in this column about Bruce Willis, but she put the kibosh on that). You know Die Hard, everybody knows Die Hard. It takes the cake as the film with the most adrenaline bleeding off of the screen since Bruce Lee battled Chuck Norris in the finalé of Way of the Dragon (1972). It’s the story of John McClane (Willis, in case you were born on Zeta Reticula IX), battling his way through a swath of terrorists while under siege in a locked down skyscraper to save his wife and a few other clowns. It was the first of five (to date) films and there was nothing quite like that before it.

But actually… there kind of was something like Die Hard on film before and it featured a guy who bears a striking resemblance to John McClane, mainly because they’re based on the exact same character. That character is Joe Leland, protagonist of the 1966 novel The Detective, by Roderick Thorp. Leland was first caught on camera two years after the novel’s publication in the Gordon Douglas film of the same name. And what actor played the prototypical John McClane? None other than “Ol’ Blue Eyes” himself, Frank Sinatra (possibly the hardest actor to picture laughing “Yippee Ki Yay Motherfucker!” into a walkie-talkie this side of Fred Rogers).

So Die Hard is a hidden sequel to The Detective? Yes and no. Nine years after the book was published, Thorp saw The Towering Inferno (1974) and dreamt of a man in a skyscraper in even greater peril than McQueen and Newman experienced. And so was born the concepts for The Detective‘s only sequel, Nothing Lasts Forever, published 13 years after its predecessor. The novel establishes the recognizable characteristics from Die Hard, including the hero being forced to fight his way through the terrorists (led by a man named Gruber) while completely barefoot, the heist at the core of the terrorist scare, cops like Powell and Robinson, the sleazy executive Ellis and even the hero’s daughter using the last name Gennaro (Mrs. McClane’s maiden name in the film series).

Indeed, Nothing Lasts Forever was originally intended to be filmed as a direct sequel to 1968’s The Detective, but Sinatra turned down the chance to reprise Leland. This paved the way for the scripts retooling as a vehicle for one of the 1980’s biggest action stars. No, not Bruce Willis. The revised script was intended to be a sequel to an entirely different film (in which an action hero saves his daughter from terrorists), Commando (1985), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Leland staggered again when Schwarzenegger, too, declined the role. Thus, with a few (surprisingly minor) revisions, Nothing Lasts Forever became Die Hard with the star of ABC’s Moonlighting appearing as the newly rechristened cop John McClane.

Naturally that (hidden) sequel produced many sequels of its own, starting with Die Hard 2: Die Harder (1990). That followup was based on a completely different novel, Walter Wagner’s 58 Minutes, which initially had about 58 kinds of nothing to do with Nothing Lasts Forever or The Detective, although it did make reference to Val Verde, the fictional setting of most of… Commando.

The second sequel, Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995) wasn’t based on a novel at all, but on the original screenplay Simon Says by Jonathan Hensleigh. While never greenlit as a standalone film, the script was picked up and was intended to be produced as Lethal Weapon 4. Likewise, the actual fourth film in the Die Hard series, 2007’s Live Free or Die Hard was based on a standalone script by David Marconi called WW3.com (based on the article “A Farewell to Arms” by John Carlin, from Wired). This makes 2013’s A Good Day to Die Hard the only film in the series to date that was specifically written and intended to be a Die Hard movie… including Die Hard itself.

Believe it or not, we’re just getting started and we’ve already covered Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Willis, two of the three pillars of Planet Hollywood, leaving only Sylvester Stallone. Sly Stallone carved his own niche in Hollywood by writing Rocky (1976) and refusing to allow the script to be made without himself in the title role. Once established as a bona fide action hero (the Rambo films didn’t hurt) Stallone was in major demand and he was attached to the film that eventually led to the critically lambasted box office smash Cobra (1986).

The core of that film-to-be was an evolving screenplay by Danilo Bach, which originated in 1977 and continued to evolve into a vehicle for Mickey Rourke in the early ’80s. When Rourke dropped out, Stallone came in and essentially re-wrote the Bach script into a harder edged cop thriller. When Paramount and the producers objected to the changes, Stallone abruptly quit and took his rewrite ideas with him and incorporated them into his script based (very loosely) on the Paula Gosling novel Fair Game (later filmed again under its original title in 1995 with Cindy Crawford and Billy Baldwin). The part Stallone abandoned was later considered for such action stars as Al Pacino, James Caan and… Richard Pryor???

But actually… Richard Pryor wasn’t quite as wrong for the part as you might think. For one thing Pryor had already shown his action chops in Silver Streak and for another, the film project was never called Cobra before Stallone left it. The film was called Beverly Hills Cop and once its final star, Eddie Murphy, was cast, it was released under that name in 1984 and eventually grossed over $300 million above its $15 million budget.

Beverly Hills Cop (1984)

When Cobra was released two years later, it managed to double its $25 million price tag in box office receipts (pulling in about one sixth of the less-expensive Beverly Hills Cop‘s haul). Beverly Hills Cop produced two successful sequels for Paramount, while Cobra‘s studio The Cannon Group eventually folded after their next collaboration with Warner Bros., the lamentably lamentable Superman IV: The Quest for Peace(1987) met its Doomsday at the box-office.

The Cannon Group was in notoriously deep water, especially after its gamble of halving Warner’s budget for Superman IV to fund Masters of the Universe (1987) failed to pay dividends (instead leaving the final Christoper Reeve film on a very sour note). However, Cannon still had contracts with Marvel Comics (for a shockingly poorly envisioned Spider-Man film) and Mattel toys (for a sequel to Masters of the Universe). While both franchises were potentially profitable, Cannon no longer had the funds to continue to pay the licensing fees, so they had to cancel both deals.

But actually… The problem was that The Cannon Group had already spent $2 million (that it really didn’t have) on the production of Masters of the Universe II (mostly in the set design and costuming departments). So what was Cannon to do to recoup its costs? Take the slated director for both Spider-Man and Masters of the Universe II , Albert Pyun, and put him in charge of an ultra-low budget film that used the costumes and sets made for the He-Man flick. Instead of making Masters II, Pyun was put in charge of a completely revised script called Cyborg. The film, which starred Jean-Claude Van Damme, was ultimately released in 1989 to atrocious reviews, but considering its mere $500,000 budget (not counting the $2 million already spent on clothes and sets), its ultimate haul of over $10 million was pretty respectable.

Of course, a relative success of the “hidden sequel” to Masters of the Universe could not keep Cannon from misfiring and dying on the vine just over three years later, so Stallone must be happy that he severed his ties with that rusty heap when he did.

Stallone, however, did go on to make more Rocky movies, on into the next century, much to the surprise of the jokers around Hollywood who predicted that, after 1985’s Rocky IV, a fifth Rocky film must necessarily pit the famed boxer against an alien invader, because all opponents on Earth had already been handily defeated with nobody left alive to even growl “Yerrrrrrrr a BUM, Rock!”

Brothers Jim and John Thomas took that concept and ran with it, finding it to be much more awesome than it was hilarious and they took their time in creating their silly sci-fi unauthorized Rocky sequel with the working title Hunter. Lucky for them, Hunter was actually picked up by 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the Alien Franchise and John McTiernan, the man who would go on to direct Die Hard was put in the director’s chair. The title creature was actually cast with none other than Jean-Claude Van Damme and production was soon underway.

But actually… Van Damme was running around in an ungainly and overweight-looking monster costume with a mask that looked like a cross between a dog and a duck and the project was almost a disaster. When Van Damme and Fox parted ways, he was replaced by the stuntman Kevin Peter Hall and the costume was changed to reflect an agile extraterrestrial designed by the master creature creator Stan Winston (with input from Aliens director James Cameron).

Predator (1987)

Somewhere along the way the “Rocky” based character was traded out for a commando played by… the Commando himself, Arnold Scwarzenegger and the film was retitled Predator somewhere along the way before its 1987 release date.

And that’s how an (admittedly facetious) Rocky sequel went on to produce four sequels and more comic books than you can shake a parrot gun at.

There’s a certain pattern to these action and police detective movies somehow fitting together, even as they move in and out of the realm of sequel/ prequelhood. And as acclaimed as many of these films have become, that’s nothing compared to the 1974 neo-noir masterpiece that was Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski. Chinatown was such a critical and commercial success that it remains an almost legendary picture to everyone’s mother and sister and mother and sister and mother and sister to this day.

Classics like Chinatown didn’t always demand sequels, but Chinatown managed to warrant a trilogy, as planned by screenwriter Robert Towne. With Roman Polanski busy in absolute exile from the United States, its 1990 sequel, The Two Jakes, was directed by the star of both films, one Jack Nicholson.

Once The Two Jakes was completed, Towne envisioned a third film, tentatively entitled Gittes vs. Gittes to be set twenty years after the second film. Gittes vs. Gittes was to deal with Jack Nicholson’s Jake character’s divorce from Mrs. Gittes. with a subplot involving the suburban expansion of Los Angeles, a freeway monopoly created by the destruction of LA slums and the dismantling of the public transit system, not to mention that monopoly expanding to the businesses built along the roadways to cash in on the drivers’ appetites.

And thus, the “Chinatown Trilogy” was set to make history.

But actually… The Two Jakes was a financial and critical disappointment and many in both the critics’ columns and the audiences’ chairs considered the film to be not animated enough and even… “boring”. thus the third installment was scrapped. Luckily the story was still told, two years earlier in a new film written by Chinatown fans Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman who took heavy influence from Chinatown and its planned sequels. The spinoff film showcased a lovelorn private detective in late ‘40s Los Angeles on an impossible case featuring a… fugitive cartoon rabbit… and his buxom redheaded bride and a psychotic industrialist cop who wants to… drop a piano on your head…

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988)

Yes, that’s right, “Chinatown 3” morphed into Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), based on Gary K. Wolf’s 1981 novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit? but taking drastic plot shifts along the way partially to bring the plot into the world of multi-company animation (as opposed to the book’s focus on comic strips) and partially due to the Jake Gittes influence coming from the third Chinatown story.

Sure Die Hard started out as not one but two sequels to unrelated films, Beverly Hills Cop begat Cobra, Masters of the Universe begat Cyborg and the Rocky franchise (sort of) begat Predator, but Who Framed Roger Rabbit proving to be a “hidden sequel” to Chinatown takes the proverbial cake… and then drops a piano on it (followed, I assume, by an anvil).

Are there more hidden sequels right now? This is Hollywood we’re talking about. There are probably some being accidentally created right this minute, so of course the list goes on and on. Could it get more shocking than the Roger Rabbit/ Two Jakes connection? Maybe we’ll find out that Battlefield Earth started out as the aborted “too much” sci-fi script for the proposed and abandoned “Die Hard 4: IN SPACE. ‘Til then, I’ll see you sequel seekers in the Next Reel.