Welcome back to the Weekly Watchlist, a rundown of everything you should be watching.
This week, with Expendables 4 having been unleashed like a plague of locusts upon the unsuspecting citizens of the world, let’s take a look at some alternatives to wash the putrid taste out of audiences’ mouths. Because despite what Expendables 4 would have you believe, there are truly wonderful fourth installments in long-running franchises that are able to not just sustain the greatness of prior entries but even manage to build upon them in fresh, engaging, and creative ways. These are some of the best four-quels to check out.
5. Rocky IV (1985)
Sylvester Stallone is a strange figure in pop culture. On the one hand, he’s the creative genius whose Academy Award-nominated original screenplay for Rocky launched a Best Picture-winning 1976 film, a cinematic franchise still running to this day, and his entire acting career. On the other hand, he’s also the man who directed Staying Alive. Rocky IV falls somewhere distinctly in the middle, a work in which Stallone’s great artistic integrity and brazenly brash commercial sensibilities collide to endlessly entertaining results.
If you have somehow never had the distinct pleasure of witnessing this monolith of 80’s pop culture, Rocky IV has everything from robot butlers to gruesome ringside deaths to the highest number of training montages ever featured in a single film. Its bizarre idiosyncrasies have made it maligned by many over the decades (so much so that Stallone recently re-edited the entire film as a new “director’s cut”), but don’t listen to the naysayers: anyone who can’t appreciate the sheer unbridled joy of Rocky IV is missing out on the beauty of life.
4. Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)
Rocky IV may be a bit of a controversial pick, but this is certainly not. Ghost Protocol is widely regarded as one of, if not the best, film in the Mission: Impossible franchise, which is an insanely high bar given just how great the entire series is. But it is absolutely easy to see why. Writer and director Brad Bird (The Iron Giant, The Incredibles) makes the leap to live-action filmmaking in a way that feels entirely natural and like a penultimate culmination of his work up to this point.
Bird brings the ’60s aesthetic of the original Mission: Impossible television series back to the movies in a big way here, highlighting gadgetry, globe-trotting, and, of course, the incomparable Tom Cruise and his insane stunts (this is the Mission film with instantly iconic Berj Khalifa setpiece) in a manner that had never been accomplished on such a scale before. Ghost Protocol capitalized on the groundwork laid by previous installments, built upon Bird’s own creative ambitions, and set the stage for everything that has come since. A ludicrously wonderful film.
3. The Matrix Resurrections (2021)
In a cinematic landscape populated with hollow attempts to mine the audience’s nostalgia for cheap thrills in a way that feels distinctly more memetic than cinematic (it is perhaps of interest to note that Resurrections came out just a week after Spider-Man: No Way Home… do with that what you will), Lana Wachowski made an achingly beautiful ode to making art within the confines of a commercial system. The Matrix Resurrections is almost certainly not the Matrix film anyone was asking for or expecting, instead opting to be one of the most existential, thought-provoking, and genuinely awe-inspiring works of blockbuster filmmaking of the last few years. Deeply metatextual and invested in exploring the legacy of the Matrix films and what they mean to the world and their creators, The Matrix Resurrections is an exquisite film, featuring some all-timer performances from both Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss. Fantastic stuff.
2. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Look, any list of significant four-quels that doesn’t at least mention the fact that George Miller just casually returned to his iconic Mad Max series after making Babe and Happy Feet films for years, and delivered one of the most adrenaline-pumping high-wire acts of action filmmaking in cinematic history is being disingenuous with themselves.
If you’ve never seen it, Fury Road is everything you’ve heard and more. An astonishing and frequently Herculean work, George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road is an unbelievable triumph on every conceivable level.
1. The Muppet Christmas Carol(1992)
Getting by on a technicality (it is technically the fourth theatrically-released Muppet film) is a stone-cold masterpiece of cinema that I will sing the praises of until the day I die. In the wake of Muppet-creator Jim Henson’s death, the entire team at Jim Henson Productions rallied together and made one of the most deeply affecting Christmas films imaginable, up to the task of standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.
From Jerry Juhl’s incredible screenplay (which so brilliantly recontextualizes and adapts the original Dickens story for Muppet-ification while still preserving the pillars of its storytelling) to director Brian Henson and cinematographer John Fenner’s inconceivably symphonic and gorgeous visual work to Paul Williams’ insatiably perfect songs, The Muppet Christmas Carol is brilliant. It builds upon everything Henson’s Muppet work stood for, charting a course to new cinematic territories while simultaneously only deepening one’s reverence for the original works, Muppet Christmas Carol is a goddamn masterpiece of cinema.