I’m an old school Oliver Stone fan. I was a freak about Oliver Stone the screenwriter before he ever started directing. Movies like “Midnight Express” and “Scarface” and “Year Of The Dragon” and “Conan The Barbarian” all had his name on them, and as someone who wanted to write movies and who was blown away by the rabid energy of his work, I started paying close attention to his career. I became manic about his work in ’86 when he released “Salvador” and “Platoon” back to back, and I dug both “Wall Street” and “Talk Radio” when they were released. It was the run of movies from “Born On The Fourth Of July” in 1989 to “Nixon” in 1995 where I think he was at his best. Since then, he’s been making interesting failures, eminently watchable films like “U Turn” and “Any Given Sunday” and “Alexander” and “W.”, movies that are engaging enough conceptually but that fall apart under closer inspection, movies that just don’t work on that all-cylinders-firing level that his best work does. It’s his fault, really. You can’t make “Born On The Fourth” and “The Doors” and “JFK” and “Natural Born Killers” back to back without setting up some lofty expectations.
Stone has long been hounded by his own habits and history, and his work has been a fairly naked attempt to grapple with his own identity as reflected back in America’s narrative. When he made “Wall Street,” he was nailing down a type that was very much of a moment, the product of Reagan’s America, and Gordon Gekko felt like something coughed up from the zeitgeist. Someone had to make a movie about Gordon Gekko, and it took Oliver Stone to capture his voice. When I first heard talk about a sequel to the film that wasn’t even written by Stone, I was skeptical. It sounded to me like an empty exercise, an attempt by Stone to return to commercial relevance by rehashing a past victory. The script by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff is a smart update to the character, though, and they use the return of Gekko as an excuse to look at where we are now as a result of this last run on the American people by the various financial institutions.
The film opens with Gekko (Michael Douglas, who rips into the part like a starving man with a well-cooked steak) being released from prison. His anger and bitterness are on simmer from this very first scene, but Gekko’s learned patience in prison, and for a big stretch of the film, we’re not even aware that he has an agenda, much less that it’s playing out according to plan.
Just as Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen) was the focus of the first film, with Gordon Gekko as a supporting character, Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is the lead this time. He’s a young broker who is working to help fund a major alternative energy company, and he’s building a reputation for himself as a shrewd young player. When his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) finds himself caught up in the early days of the recession, only to end his life instead of facing the consequences, Jake finds himself untethered. His girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) just happens to be the estranged daughter of Gordon Gekko, and he’s starting to become a major name again. Jake is determined to use his connection to Gekko, and he fools himself into believing he’s doing it so that Winnie can reunite with her father. At the same time, Jake finds himself grappling with a huge Wall Street player named Bretton James (Josh Brolin), who may have been directly responsible for Louis Zabel’s death.
Basically, Stone sets the stage for another of his films about the way young men and old men gather, maintain, and tend to power. Here, it’s the financial world, and Stone certainly wants to look closely at what’s been going on in America in the last five years or so. Stone’s always had a knack for taking exposition and purely informational scenes and somehow giving them a charge. There are big chunks of this film that are just men of money sitting around tables talking about how things work, and even so, it’s dramatically compelling.
It helps that LaBeouf is perfectly cast here. He’s got a nervous live-wire energy that works well for this character and this culture. He and Carey Mulligan have excellent chemistry in the film, and she manages to make Winnie register as a real character despite fairly limited screen time. In the original “Wall Street,” Gekko only had a son, and there are some references here to how Gekko lost him to drugs. Between that and the theme that runs through the film about trying to make the most of the time we have, this ends up feeling like a very personal role for Douglas, and he’s great here, the wisdom of age informing the craven nature of the character. Josh Brolin also contributes solid work, although it’s not the most demanding of roles. He’s established at this point that he does oily very, very well, and that’s true here as well.
It’s just nice to see Stone make a movie that works from start to finish that doesn’t feel overheated and excessive. “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” is a nice return to form by one of our best socially-minded filmmakers, and it works as both entertainment and polemic, no easy trick.
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