We all know Hollywood has a shortage of new ideas, which is why consistently popular franchises (even ones with a fourth movie) become so valuable. It’s not even the end of May yet, and already this year has produced sequels and reboots “The Pink Panther 2,” “Friday the 13th,” “The Last House on the Left,” “Crank: High Voltage,” “Angels & Demons,” and “Star Trek.” The sequel opening this weekend is “Terminator Salvation,” and it’s the fourth movie in the Terminator franchise. If history is any indication, don’t expect much from it, because the fourth movie almost always sucks. Already this year, we’ve had such fourth-in-franchise treats like “Madea Goes to Jail,” “Fast & Furious,” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine.” Ugh.
In fact, fourth movies are typically so bad that I can barely recommend any of the films on this list wholeheartedly. In other words, this list—for the most part—sucks. These are the best fourth-in-a-series films I could dig up. The rest are even worse. Why bother with a list of paltry returns, you may ask? Let’s just say it was to prove a point. Two more decent fourth movies came out in 2011–here’s a Top 10 sequel list! Here then, are the Top 10 Best Fourth Movies in a Franchise. If you have your own idea for a Top 10 list, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
10. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
With a little hindsight, I may be able to say now that the worst movie of the Harry Potter series suffered more than a little bit from having to follow the best (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”). Even at a long 157 minutes, it still feels incomplete. It’s too episodic and clunky, and the three leads are mired in much teenage angst but without any of the details to make the audience feel it. Whereas “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” had the ingenuity to elevate teenage insecurity literally to the end of the world, “Goblet of Fire” throws in a couple sullen faces and lightning-fast character turnarounds that don’t make sense. For the first time, you get the feeling that characters are doing things only because that’s what they did in the book, and that’s a bad sign.
9. Sudden Impact (1983)
Most people probably assume that Clint Eastwood’s badass detective Harry Callahan uttered his catch phrase “Go ahead, make my day” during his first onscreen appearance in 1971’s “Dirty Harry.” Not true. It was in this fourth franchise pic—the first one in seven years and the highest grossing one ever—that Harry shot three young black men holding up a diner and stopped a fourth from taking a hostage with those famous words. By 1983, the formerly conflicted cop of the first three 70s films had given way to a Reagan-era conservatism that saw the audience rooting for Harry and his one-man fight against crime without any reservations. The phrase was such a hit that T.G. Sheppard recorded a country song called “Make My Day” featuring Eastwood samples and President Reagan used the line in a speech threatening to veto tax-raising legislation. What a cad. This movie makes the list on cultural impact only, even if it was a sad comment on where the country stood at the time.
8. Bride of Chucky (1998)
“Bride of Chucky” is here to represent all of the horror series that keep going into production because people keep renting crappy scary movies at video stores and these cheap-o franchises are the first ones they grab. (I know because I worked at one.) Like “Sudden Impact,” this film was the most financially successful of any in the series and it had been many years (eight to be exact) since the last movie in the franchise (“Child’s Play 3”). “Bride of Chucky” was as apt to make fun of itself as Chucky the evil doll was to stab someone repeatedly in the chest. That’s why it’s on the list. That and Jennifer Tilly. “Bride of Chucky” is a winking tribute to tons of other horror films, and a pretty sardonically funny one at that. In that respect alone, it towers over yawner fourth franchise films like “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master,” “Children of the Corn IV: The Gathering,” “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers,” “Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter,” “Saw IV,” and “Tremors 4: The Legend Begins.”
7. The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)
Although it involves puppetry, this is about as far from Chucky as it gets. Muppets creator Jim Henson died unexpectedly in 1990, so it was his son Brian Henson who directed this musical retelling of the classic Charles Dickens novel. The Muppets are their usual charming selves, even if they don’t do anything too different or exciting with this familiar story. Kermit the Frog (no longer voiced by Jim Henson and, dammit, it’s just not the same!) is Bob Cratchit and Michael Caine is Scrooge. Originally it was to be a made-for-TV event in 1991, but the budget and script grew bigger, so the Walt Disney Company released it in theaters the following Christmas holiday to little fanfare. Disney eventually bought The Muppets in 2004, and “I Love You, Man” star Jason Segel (who sang with his own Dracula puppet in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”) is currently writing a new Muppet adventure for the studio as you read this. Sweet.
6. Thunderball (1965)
Did somebody ask for an overly long action film with groan-inducing dialogue? Good, because I’m skipping the anti-Communist propaganda of “Rocky IV” and the fetishized violence of 2008’s fourth “Rambo” movie (both of which fit that bill perfectly) in favor of this silly British import, which found Sean Connery’s James Bond at the height of his popularity. You couldn’t get much bigger than Bond in 1965 (only “The Sound of Music” and “Doctor Zhivago” topped it at the box office that year), and “Thunderball” took the British spy underwater for many protracted fight scenes and one particularly bad standout one-liner, which Connery delivered after shooting a bad guy with a spear gun: “I believe he got the point.” Oh yeah, and did I mention the jet pack?
5. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
We’re halfway through the list of the BEST fourth movies in a franchise, and we’re merely cracking the tip of movies I’d recommend with reservations. That’s how disappointing fourth films can be. The hype was unbelievable. There was no way George Lucas could approach the greatness of a series beloved by young fans and overgrown boys everywhere. So he didn’t. Lucas’ fourth “Star Wars” film (I don’t care that it’s the first one chronologically in the timeline, it’s still the fourth one to hit theaters, and that’s the whole point of this list!) was a crushing disappointment, featuring everything from pesky midi-chlorians that take all the fun out of the Force to weirdly obvious racial stereotypes in alien characters (Watto the hook-nosed “Jewish” miser, a Stepin Fetchit-like Jar Jar Binks whose Gungun tribe throws spears). Even much-hyped Time magazine coverboy Darth Maul was only in the film for about fifteen minutes! On the other hand, as Kevin Smith’s animated “Clerks” series declared during a Lucas trial for offenses against the “Star Wars” community: “The pod race was pretty cool.”
4. Live Free or Die Hard (2007)
What made the first “Die Hard” such a great action movie is that we rooted for Bruce Willis’ underdog detective John McClane with every fiber of our being. After getting in an unresolved argument with his estranged wife, he spent the next two hours wise-cracking his way through hostage situations, gun fights, explosions, and running on broken glass with bare feet. We liked this guy. Well, he’s more than a bit crotchety 19 years later, and although the suspense isn’t nearly as tightly managed as it is in the original, the story is personal again, coming down to McClane having to save his daughter from a hostage situation. Between the setup and the climax, however, are all manner of ridiculously fun action scenes like McClane sending a police car zooming over a tollbooth to destroy a helicopter, fighting a beautiful female assassin while hanging precariously in an elevator shaft, and dismantling a moving military jet with his bare hands. Just typing that last sentence makes me laugh.
3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
I’ll admit it took a little time for the nostalgic sheen to wear off of this one. Even with all it’s flaws, it’s still good enough to place at #3. (Guess there’s not a lot of competition.) The fourth Lucas-Spielberg Indiana Jones collaboration reunites Harrison Ford and Karen Allen but forgets the chemistry. It also puts Indy on another far-out supernatural journey but forgets the suspense. The plot is all over the place, and although the idea of the crystal skull and an ancient alien race was cool in theory, it was handled about as poorly as you can get. Also, any movie that wastes the talents of Cate Blanchett is suspect as well. (I’m looking at you too, “Button”!) Regardless, it’s a more watchable affair than the mostly sedate “Phantom Menace” and some of its set pieces (the atomic testing scene, the library chase) are absolute screams. Isn’t it funny how we’re in the Top 3 now and I still can’t even recommend one of these films without some serious reservations? Yikes.
2. Land of the Dead (2005)
Zombie master George Romero took 10 years between 1968’s “Night of the Living Dead” and “Dawn of the Dead,” seven years between that and 1985’s “Day of the Dead,” and a whopping 20 years between that and 2005’s “Land of the Dead.” The timing was right, after zombie successes “28 Days Later,” Zack Snyder’s “Dawn of the Dead” remake, and the comedic tribute “Shaun of the Dead,” for the writer/director to return to the genre he pioneered. Romero chose that moment to make his most overtly political film, criticizing the Bush administration’s growing isolationism both abroad and within the our own borders by featuring a hopped-up Dennis Hopper (who doesn’t negotiate with terrorists) in a glass-encased “city of the privileged” called Fiddler’s Green. Guess who’s coming to dinner? It’s not Sidney Poitier, ha! Romero also continued the slow evolution of zombies that has been consistent throughout the series, giving them the ability to learn from mistakes and have a little somewhat advanced thought. It’s not a perfect movie, with some stagey moments and corny dialogue, but it’s a hell of a lot better than 2008’s disappointing and desperate-to-be-relevant “Diary of the Dead.” Let’s hope the one he’s making now (currently in postproduction) brings back the biting satire of the first four.
1. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986)
Wow, what a coincidence. This series is a bit in the news right now, isn’t it? While “Leprechaun 4: In Space” went spaceward with its characters, director Leonard Nimoy’s “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home” brought Spock (Nimoy), Captain Kirk (William Shatner), and the rest of the starship Enterprise from outer space back home to Earth—in 1986 San Francisco. What this movie has in common with its 2009 reboot is a seriously funny sense of humor. After the dreary “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” Nimoy took the franchise in a different direction completely, fitting in an environmentally friendly message (the crew is trying to save the humpback whales!) and using the longtime actors and their beloved characters to their fullest fish-out-of-water (no pun intended) capacity. As silly as it is, it’s well-intentioned, efficiently plotted, and—did I mention?—pretty damn funny. That’s more than I can say for the unfortunate fourth Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) film, 1997’s “Vegas Vacation.”
Well, that’s it—that’s as good as fourth movies get. What a fine legacy “Terminator Salvation” has to live up to. What do you think? Coming up with 10 good ones was rough. Did I miss any?