A quick glimpse at the calendar presents a cornucopia of pop cinema riches that were available each month at megaplexes:
- June: Total Recall. Dick Tracy. Days of Thunder.
- July: Ghost. Arachnophobia. Presumed Innocent.
- August: Flatliners. My Blue Heaven. Darkman.
Meanwhile, at the art house, you could have caught Last Exit to Brooklyn, Mo’ Better Blues or Wild at Heart. How anyone visited the beach remains a mystery. Sun tans are superfluous when you are vacationing with Paul Verhoeven, Spike Lee and David Lynch.
Wilder still is the notion that the aforementioned titles are merely two waves, calmly hitting auditorium shores while a veritable tsunami of sequels decimated the competition. It has become a common fallacy that the modern Industrial Cape Complex is somehow capitalizing on franchises more aggressively than studios were in the past. Sequels are nothing new, and Summer 1990 is perhaps the most stacked collection of follow-ups in history.
Since theaters remain mostly dark, it seems as if it’s a good idea to construct a blockbuster time machine and list the 10continuations that sought to make a fuck-load of bank back in 1990. Being the sadist that he is, my editor Sonny threw in a catch: They had to be ranked as well. So, without further ado, here’s how one of the finest seasons in franchise filmmaking qualitatively shook out.
#10. Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (Released Aug. 24, 1990; d. Aaron Norris)
Delta Force (1986) stands as one of the best exports out of Cannon Films’ disreputable violence factory. Acting as Golan & Globus’ Irwin Allen disaster equivalent, it rounds up a cadre of B-Movie has-beens (Bo Svenson! Shelley Winters! George Kennedy!), while delivering that sweet Chuck Norris dopamine rush that their scuzzier admirers desired. Menahem Golan directed this loose recreation of the TWA Flight 847 tragedy (featuring a bronzed Bob Forster as head hijacker). Golan delivered a product that is self-serious for the first 45 before descending into Uzi battles, rocket cycles and a 9,000-year-old Lee Marvin doing his best approximation of General Joe Colton.
Things changed at Cannon afterwards. Golan/Globus split during the company’s decline, causing a rift between the Israeli cousins. Golan formed 21st Century Pictures, while Yoram Globus remained. This makes Delta Force 2: The Colombian Connection (or Operation Stranglehold, depending when/where/how you saw it) heartbreakingly avaricious, complete with Norris going Full Diva. Chuck became Cannon’s golden boy during its heyday, enabling him to hire his brother, Aaron, to helm the sequel. This means The Colombian Connection is “All Chuck, All the Time,” as he leads the titular strike force into South America, taking revenge on a ruthless drug lord (Billy Drago) after his partner is executed. Pure exploitation, The Colombian Connection is mean, ugly and fueled by its star’s aggressive politics. It also showcases incredible stunt work that includes a spectacular skydiving sequence and a missile-attack finale that’s downright apocalyptic. Not too shabby, considering the melancholy melodrama that marred its making.
#9. Another 48 Hrs. (Released June 8, 1990; d. Walter Hill)
When the Safdies became attached to helm a 48 Hrs. (1982) remake, it was reason to both celebrate and scratch our heads. How the hell do you remake Walter Hill’s racially charged action classic, where Eddie Murphy might be operating at his most comedically combative and Nick Nolte is the perfect shrapnel-throated “straight man” bigot? In an era where even the slightest socially uncouth infraction can be taken out of context and used against you, 48 Hrs. contains an evidence locker’s worth of confiscated cancelation grenades.
This could help explain the sheen of flop sweat that covers Another 48 Hrs. By the end of the ’80s, Hill was running on fumes, while Murphy was at his movie-star peak. So, Eddie co-produced Another 48 Hrs., with Hill returning to the testosterone-fueled formula he had previously perfected. Problem is, there’s a sense of “been there/done that” dilution to the proceedings, right down to the numerous jokey callbacks. Plus, the plot — involving a hit put out on Reggie (Murphy) while Jack (Nolte) ruins his career pursuing a criminal mastermind called “The Iceman” — doesn’t make a ton of sense, because Paramount gutted the original cut mere weeks before release. Nevertheless, if you are a Hill junkie, Another 48 Hrs. contains all the auteur’s hallmarks: bombastic shootouts, neon-lit bar fights, bus chases, gorgeous San Fran location work and coke-nosed editing. Sometimes that’s all you need.
#8. Young Guns II (Released Aug. 1, 1990; d. Geoff Murphy)
“Regulators – regulate the stealing of any man’s property. We’re damn good, too. But you can’t be any geek off the street. Gotta be handy with the steel, if you know what I mean?” With one quick exchange, an iconic Warren G. sample was born. Yet what’s most notable about the Brat Pack Western is that, were it made today, Young Guns (1988) would be a YA-style Netflix pilot. Instead, it’s an unreconstructed gunslinger yarn, with Emilio Estevez giving a great performance as Billy “The Kid” Bonney, flanked by a family of peyote-sipping Regulators: Doc Scurlock (Kiefer Sutherland); Dick Brewer (Charlie Sheen); “Dirty Steve” Stephens (Dermot Mulroney); Charlie Bowdre (Casey Siemaszko); and Chavez y Chavez (Lou Diamond Phillips).
Young Guns II is a rarity: cash-grab product whose existence clashes with Young Guns’ epilogical narration that still turned out better than the first. Estevez, Sutherland and Phillips return, joined by newborn heartthrob Christian Slater as Arkansas Dave Rudabaugh. A “print the legend” recounting of Billy the Kid’s final days, Young Guns II has more in common with Michael Mann’s digital Dillinger biopic Public Enemies (2009), as cattle baron John Chisum (James Coburn) deputizes The Kid’s cohort, Pat Garrett (William Petersen), to assassinate the outlaw. From the PG-13 rating, you would think this follow-up doubled down on the wrong elements, but it’s just as violent, muscularly directed, sports an Alan Silvestri score and an Oscar-nominated anthem from Jon Bon Jovi. Strangely enough, the sequel solidified the Young Guns duology as forgotten mid-range gems that nobody really talks about anymore.
#7. Back to the Future Part III (Released May 24, 1990; d. Robert Zemeckis)
Back to the Future (1985) is the horniest movie to gross $400 million worldwide, while owning a perfectly structured screenplay and technically marvelous direction. So, it only made sense to franchise Robert Zemeckis’ international sensation about a skateboarding dweeb (Michael J. Fox) driving his scientist buddy’s (Christopher Lloyd) plutonium-fueled DeLorean into the past, only to frantically avoid fucking his mom (Lea Thompson) while getting his geek-boy dad (Crispin Glover) to finally stand up for himself. Entire families watched this PG-rated fetish collection, rooting for Marty McFly while Stephen Spielberg’s wholesome touch combined with Alan Silvestri’s iconic score to make Zemeckis’ kinkiness seem vanilla.
The sequels vary in quality, despite being shot concurrently. Part II (1989) acts as Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale’s time-travel spin on Dickens, forcing Marty to confront both the future and past that their meddling in the continuum creates. Part III is the better of the two; it sends Marty and Doc back to 1885, where a High Noon showdown with gunslinger bully “Mad Dog” Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson, the series’ not-so-secret MVP) and a lovely schoolteacher romance (Mary Steenburgen) await. While Part II is merely a series of shrill, rehashed set pieces, Part III is a proper damn Western, slowing down long enough to allow us to care about these characters again. Though neither reaches the dizzying heights of their wildly successful progenitor, it’s still crazy to watch Gale’s storytelling acumen congeal with Zemeckis’ methodical wizardry to produce radically different second and third chapters.
#6. The Exorcist III (Released Aug. 17, 1990; d. William Peter Blatty)
Jay Cheel’s superlative horror doc Cursed Films (now on Shudder) delves into how we mythologize movies, and if so-called “cursed films” even exist at all. Sure, two planes were struck by lightning during the making of The Omen (1976), but that doesn’t mean the devil plagued that production any more than The Exorcist (1972). One of Cursed Films’ strongest elements is that it doesn’t deny spooky shit happens, but also lays blame at the feet of overzealous auteurs. After all, could you imagine what would happen to Billy Friedkin if he fired a gun on set in 2020? Sometimes, hubris is far more frightening than any supernatural rationalization.
Speaking of The Exorcist, nothing demystified that picture more than the sequels it spawned. The Heretic (1977) downright loathes the very genre it exists in, as John Boorman seems more fascinated with tribal psychedelia than anything involving the demons Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) once fought. Ditto The Exorcist III, which sees author William Peter Blatty combining masculine drama with studio-mandated pea-soup spewing, resulting in a mixed bag of stellar frights (you know the one) and a tacked-on ending that was never in Blatty’s book (1983’s Legion) or initial screenplay. The juxtaposition is certainly jarring, but it’s totally worth it for an over-the-top Brad Dourif performance as the Gemini Killer and Jason Miller returning as a rather familiar “Patient X.” The biggest mystery of all is why Warner Brothers ever thought it would be a great financial move to release this in August instead of October.
#5. RoboCop 2 (Released June 22, 1990; d. Ivan Kershner)
The Robocop (2014) remake is like the guy who attaches a gigantic set of Truck Nutz to his Ford F350 King Ranch Edition. With a cast that features Sam Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Michael K. Williams and Jackie Earle Haley, it’s overcompensating for the fact that it will never be Paul Verhoeven’s blood squib-riddled, MPAA-shaming oddity that’s one of the most face-melting cinematic experiences you can enjoy. Everyone knows you don’t get into a dick-measuring contest with the Mad Dutchman, as he’ll whip out a Total Recall, plus five other genre-subverting experiments that will blow your shrimp shit away.
But that’s why Robocop 2 works well: It doesn’t try to compete, instead leaning into funny-book legend/screenwriter Frank Miller’s misanthropic worldview. Constructed by Empire Strikes Back (‘80) carpenter Irvin Kershner, this proto-Pepe nightmare becomes a vision of “the future libtards want.” Authorities plead for the populace to behave, yet the only response to new street drug Nuke is more tyrannical bloodshed. Pusher supreme Tom Noonan sinisterly intones about smack utopias; packs of killer preteens pool their crack allowances to buy politicians; robot sentinels commit suicide; and our now blue-tinted, tin-can Jesus smashes brains and brutalizes creeps while on patrol. Entirely too long and lacking the speed-freak flourishes that made Verhoeven’s movie such a head rush, Robocop 2 makes up for these shortcomings by being one of the most outlandish franchise films ever released by a studio. Imagine an MCU installment with this level of anti-humanism. It’s impossible.
#4. The Two Jakes (Released Aug. 10, 1990; d. Jack Nicholson)
When it comes to “canceled” auteurs, Roman Polanski is the one this writer wrestles with most (the wolves can keep Woody).Chinatown (1974) is a big reason why; it’s an immaculate LA noir with Jack Nicholson turning in high-water work as PI Jake Gittes. Robert Evans’ golden touch is apparent as Polanski digs into perverse land empires and their incestuous patriarchs, delivering soul-blackening moral corruption. “Forget it, Jake,” Jack’s character is famously told, but by Chinatown’s grim finale, nothing is the same for Gittes. The specter of Sharon Tate looms as Polanski represented a darkness that survived Cielo Drive and contaminated Hollywood.
A year after Evans pleaded the Fifth regarding a real conspiracy that unfolded behind the scenes of Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984), he got most of the band back together for The Two Jakes. Caught in proverbial Production Hell for five years (which is its own saga), Nicholson rewrote Robert Towne’s script and directed his return as Gittes, with Harvey Keitel taking the titular second Jake that Evans actually envisioned as his acting debut. Though it lacks Polanski’s graceful malevolence, Nicholson’s direction digs into Towne’s verbose script and lets Vilmos Zsigmond bathe this latest entry in the long, sad history of LA land use with deep shadow and golden light. For all its indubitable indulgence, Nicholson shows off serious chops, calling back to noir favorites while redoing them with a slick, modern sheen. As far as vanity projects go, you wish every season contained one commercial dud this richly realized.
#3. Maniac Cop 2 (Released July 18, 1990; d. Bill Lustig)
You should be counting the days until Nic Refn and John Hyams’ upcoming HBO update of the Maniac Cop series (1988-1992) drops. Not only are two premier talents uniting for a 10-hour run of neon mayhem, the original trilogy is stuffed with not-so-subtle subtext that easily lends itself to a 2020 redux. In an era of rampant police brutality, Bill Lustig and Larry Cohen’s perversion of the gun and badge into being another faceless Grim Reaper is still the most socially relevant slasher ever. Robert Z’Dar’s Matt Cordell is a fallen exterminating angel. It’s the anti-#BlueLivesMatter nightmare for any era.
However, no remake would be acceptable if Refn/Hyams didn’t bring the head-exploding visceral insanity that marks Maniac Cop 2 as such a face-melting pleasure. Combining the filmic grammar of Italian gialli with the go-for-broke action of ’80s Hong Kong cinema, Maniac Cop 2 finds Cordell storming his way through the city as a Kalashnikov Frankenstein, lighting up police stations with death-defying wire work, resulting in cinema’s most satisfying action/horror hybrid. The fact that Leo Rossi is cast as Cordell’s murderous Igor, while Bruce Campbell is this entry’s Janet Leigh (returning as good guy officer Jack Forrest) are merely crimson icing on a fetid, diseased cake that film-noir-ready Robert Davi has been sent to investigate. Though Lustig disowns it, a double bill with Maniac Cop 3: Badge of Silence (1992) cements these sequels as the NYC Grime equivalent of Hammer’s Technicolor gems, Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Frankenstein Created Woman (1967).
#2. Die Hard 2 (Released July 3, 1990; d. Renny Harlin)
You can’t overstate the elegance of John McTiernan’s Die Hard (1988). Arriving at the end of the ’80s oiled superman cycle, we are introduced to Bruce Willis’ smarmy everyman grit. Instead of missiles, motorcycles and freakish splits, Willis’ John McClane relies on his wits to free an estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) and the rest of the hostages held in Nakatomi Plaza by Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his band of misfit toy terrorists. Die Hard is an exercise in pure, big-budget craftsmanship, elevated via Jan de Bont’s unfuckwitable anamorphic cinematography. Some films are just obvious classics, destined to be re-watched until the end of time. Die Hard is one.
Renny Harlin’s Die Hard 2? Not so much. Now, that’s not to say it isn’t good (it’s #2 for a reason), but Harlin takes McTiernan’s playbook and tosses it out the window. If Delta Force was Cannon’s Irwin Allen imitation, then Die Hard 2 is what Cannon would have looked like had those involved matched passion with precision. The definitive “bigger is better” continuation, McLane’s second run-in with terrorists is a brawny, fantastical trip to Dulles Airport, with Bill Sadler doing naked Tai Chi, exploding jumbo jets, snowmobile gun battles, Dennis Franz swearing a lot, and Franco Nero as a despotic general. All set at Christmas. Again. It’s fucking awesome and, along with Cliffhanger (1993), represents a vulgar action auteur at the height of his powers. The fact that Die Hard With a Vengeance (1995) bests it is astonishing. We’re not going to discuss the rest of the series, though.
#1. Gremlins 2: The New Batch (Released June 15, 1990; d. Joe Dante)
This list’s second Spielberg-guided franchise actually improved once it wiggled out from under our finest blockbuster filmmaker. Gremlins (1984) is a stone classic, America’s wildest Christmas genre riff (sorry, Die Hard). Just as interested in satire as he was in crafting a creature feature, Joe Dante re-worked Chris Columbus’ “Old Yeller with monsters” script into a pitch-black commentary on capitalism that absolutely shreds once the beasts come out to play. Double kudos to Rick Baker, whose Mogwai rank in the analog SFX Hall of Fame, coming to life in a fashion that’s frantic, funny and frightening.
Now you understand why Gremlins 2: The New Batch is a miracle. Infamously granted creative control after turning Warner Bros. down several times, The New Batch is so madcap it feels like the Mogwai fired Dante and directed the movie themselves. Chuck Jones’ influence is felt tenfold, as jokes fly with an exhausting ZAZ-like frequency. Recasting young lovers Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) as upstart yuppies stuck in a Trumpian NYC high-rise, Dante skewers the very corporate culture that demanded that he return, while simultaneously paying tribute to late-night horror hosts and Hammer Films (Christopher Lee’s mad scientist is a gift). Yet the film’s true spirit is again located in its monsters, who grow extra legs, bigger brains and sing full-throated showtunes. Bucking against former mentor Roger Corman’s wisdom, Dante decided to do what he wanted, audience be damned. God bless him, as summer movies are seldomly this charmingly idiosyncratic.
Jacob Knight is a film writer based in Austin, Texas, whose work has appeared in several publications and who has spent more time watching action and exploitation movies than any human being probably should.