The first Wall Street arrived in 1987, and as it went on to become a cult classic over the years, became the symbol of the greed that we assumed pervades Wall Street. 23 years on, there was no need for a sequel; none of the people involved in the original wanted a new film, there wasn't really a fan base writing Internet petitions to make it, and there was most definitely no studio willing to sink money on something that wasn't in the zeitgeist.
Bernie Madoff and The Financial Meltdown created the raison d'être for the sequel to exist, and a playground in which we could safely unleash Gordon Gekko again. For those of you who don't remember Wall Street (and really, who can blame you), the film had a particularly stark and downbeat ending given the way it operated on the "Greed is Good" mantra. The result of greed and shady machinations don't have a good end, and the film was firm about that.
2010, and Gekko finally gets out of prison, with his empty money clip and a mobile phone the size of a brick. He is a dinosaur in this new financial world, and Michael Douglas imbues him with enough oily charisma and senior defeatism to make his a compelling screen presence. Once again Gekko is the charismatic snake, and the straight man is a young man.
Shia LeBeouf's Jake is more world-weary and smart than Bud, though. He knows what to do, and how to run business. He's a man who knows what's what, though he could stand to know more about the business, and he mostly has it together for the most part. When his mentor Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) is crushed under Bretton James' (Josh Brolin) company trying to make the best of the meltdown, it becomes clear to Jake that he too must crush Bretton.
Add to it that he is in a relationship with a girl whose last name is Gekko, and you have a stew going.
This film exists to show us how these villains work, and what it takes to bring one of them down, but it really is about money, power and what men do to get the most of both. The transformation of a young, naïve kid is not what interests Stone, but the shifting of each person's moral and emotional compass based on the power struggle.
It's fascinating to watch, and when Jake, Bretton and Gordon are at it, the film is electric. It's about men with a lot of charisma speaking lengthy dialogues, and Stone and his DP, the ever amazing Rodrigo Prieto, nail it. The cast is brilliant, and delivers a performance that matches the intense charisma that Douglas brings to the table.
Despite that, this is merely a good film, never great. The screenplay that holds it all together and makes it shine just isn't there. For a film of this calibre, there is no room for fluff, and yet Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff spend a considerable amount of time creating sub-plots that do not affect the plot or the emotional balance of the film at any level. Stupid motorcycle races eat into the time that could have been spent making Gekko flesh the core out, and they don't do it.
As it stands, this one is a perfectly good film, and very, very timely. It's fun and enigmatic and worth a lot more, but it isn't a great sequel, or a new classic.