Greed...Is Dull - 'Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps'

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is the kind of movie Stone could set-up in his sleep...and a lot of the time, it looks like he did.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Michael Douglas, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Brolin, Carey Mulligan, Frank Langella, Eli Wallach, Susan Sarandon
Rated: R
Studio: Fox
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-09-24 (General release)

Would the real Oliver Stone please stand up? - or at the very least, come out of the mediocre mainstream moviemaking shell he's been hiding in for a little over a decade. Every since 1999's Any Given Sunday, the onetime agent provocateur of such brilliant politico-social dissertations as JFK, Nixon, and Born on the Fourth of July has instead been cashing a regular journeyman's paycheck. Oh sure, he courted some minor controversy with his less than critical take on George W. , but for the most part, his recent films have been a slight, superficial shadow of his former angry young man self. Nowhere is this truer than in his first ever sequel, a follow-up to his fascinating if flawed 1987 hit Wall Street. This time around, however, while money supposedly never sleeps, the audience will have a hard time avoiding such a state.

You see, nothing kills a classic character quicker than reinventing him as a pseudo-warm and fuzzy combination of doom saying "I told you so" prophet and desperate, disconnect ex-con dad - and yet that is exactly where we pick up with the original film's fascinating anti-hero, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas). Fresh out of eight years in the joint and ready to warn the world of the upcoming speculation "bubble", he zones in on former adversary and current money market hedge fund jockey Bretton James (Josh Brolin) . Complicit in his past crimes but also willing to cut a deal with the Feds, Gekko needs to see this man pay. He also wants a powwow with his idealistic daughter, Winnie (Carey Mulligan). Ever since the death of her brother, she has avoided all association with her family - including her infamous father.

Luckily, plot crux Jacob "Jake" Moore (Shia LaBeouf) shows up to answer both of our aging icons prayers. He is engaged to Winnie, and also wants to undermine James after watching his own mentor - beloved industry curmudgeon Lewis Zabel (Frank Langella) - buy the proverbial financial disaster farm. As the men fight over merger acquisitions and no risk mortgages, a secret trust fund is discovered, alternative energy is debated, and an attempt at redemption is thwarted by mechanical narrative twists and ridiculously pat character turns. By the end, not only are you are convinced that greed it clearly no good, it's post-millennial crash cousin is no day at the banker's beach either.

Frankly, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is the kind of movie Stone could set-up in his sleep...and a lot of the time, it looks like he did. Actually, the entire concept was better when it was called Capitalism: A Love Story. In that provocative documentary, Michael Moore had the audacity to name names, out idiocy, and more or less point the finger at EVERYONE involved - from the McMansion owners to the morons who loaned them the now worthless no money down paper. Here, Stone is fixated on his old skyscraping strategies, men clouded in an aura of deregulation legitimacy that is hard to reconcile. On the one hand, these tailor suited fat cats are wheeling and dealing like rejects from a '70s game show. On the other, they have the full faith and line of credit from none other than Uncle Sam. Somewhere in the middle a more sinister, soulless truth exists. Stone, sadly, is not interested in exploring said ethos.

Instead, it's camera tricks and split screen silliness that reminds us of why certain stylistic choices died decades ago. Even with Douglas back at the center, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps can't help but feel like a glorified gimmick. It's surprising it wasn't shot in 3D. Back when a Harvard MBA meant true king of the universe status, Gekko's slicked back hairdo was a symbol of success. Today, it's a shaggy dog story without the mutt. Much of this character's purpose comes from his outward appearance. Stone makes it very clear that Gekko has aged, can no longer pull off the Pat Reilly swagger with ease, and that a clear bout of incarcerated mid life crisis has him unconsciously pining away for a regular family life. Indeed, like most Hollywood pabulum, biology and the promise of gifts of Grandparent's Day has our monetary master blubbering like an infant.

Unfortunately, Gekko is not the only thing wrong here (in more than one way). Shia LaBeouf is an absolutely cipher in the role of Jake. He's all misty eyed drive and convenient naiveté - nothing else. When Zabel hands him an early bonus of $1.4 million, he doesn't question the corporate circumstance that allows such a personal luxury. Instead, he pisses the money away like a rapper with a royalty check. Even worse, the 'playa' wants to walk the fine line between saving the world and raping its available workforce. When he discovers how Gekko has manipulated him, his pained expressions are almost laughable. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps needed a ballsier, Bud Fox-ian figure at its core. What we get here instead is a whelp with an overpriced lifestyle.

Then there is the actual 'villain'. Josh Brolin was excellent in No Country for Old Men and as a former sitting President for Stone. But here, it's more a case of Jonah Hex than Dan White. James is all accessories - priceless paintings, antiquated officer decor, high power cliques - and yet he never gets a good line of despotic dialogue. The original Wall Street built its reputation on Gekko's given on the value in avarice. In the sequel, James delivers nothing that as remotely meaningful or memorable. Instead, he glares a great deal and scoffs at those who threaten his position of power. When taken down, he too turns into a whiny little wuss. That just leaves Carey Mulligan to do all the heavy lifting, and while capable, she's nothing more than a story goal.

Still, for all its many failings, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a timely tale told in a somewhat engaging manner. We may not care a lick about what happens to these credit card sharps and their various collateral damage, but do get a kick out of seeing Stone try to make mountains out of the already mile high molehills laying around the current economy. While one imagines the practiced pot stirring could have really have whipped up quite a lather here, he's apparently saving that for his upcoming series on the Secret History of America. Maybe with said showcase he can return to the Oliver Stone we've grown to admire and admonish. With this unnecessary revisit, he's simply an auteur treading water.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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