As we sat down to write the introduction to our list of notable film spin-offs, someone forwarded along a link to the big movie news story of the day: Tom Cruise announcing his plan to reprise his role as ultra-profane movie producer Les Grossman from the 2008 film “Tropic Thunder” in an as-yet-untitled comedy. Tom Cruise, in other words, is getting into the spin-off game.
So even though we’re a week late in finishing this list inspired by “Get Him to the Greek” (more on that film in a bit), it’s still plenty timely, and will continue to be as long as Hollywood exploits successful properties even after their original stars have moved on. Here’s the elite company Mr. Grossman will be joining:
“Evan Almighty” (2007)
Original movie: “Bruce Almighty” (2003)
Spin-off character: Evan Baxter (Steve Carell)
When a spin-off brings along two original characters and the actors that played them — in this case, pompous newscaster Evan Baxter (Steve Carell) and a jovial God (Morgan Freeman) — plus the original director, Tom Shadyac, and one of the original screenwriters, Steve Oedekerk, you expect a certain amount of continuity. But somewhere between “Evan Almighty” and its 2003 predecessor, “Bruce Almighty,” everyone seems to have forgotten the rules of their own franchise. In the first film, God bestowed his power upon Bruce (Jim Carrey) to teach him about goodness and self-worth. God’s one caveat: Bruce couldn’t do anything that impinged upon free will because, at least within the theoretical universe of the film, God can’t affect man’s free will.
But since we doubt newly elected Congressman Evan Baxter would willingly choose to attend a committee meeting in a Robinson Crusoe beard and biblical robes, apparently God has changed the rules. Poor Steve Carell spends the entire movie as God’s physical and emotional punching bag, all to learn a valuable lesson about the importance of environmental conservation and good carpentry. God doesn’t just force Evan to build an ark, he makes him look and dress like a hobo, and in the process turns him into a laughing stock and kills his career in the U.S. government. Sure, the Lord works in mysterious ways, but does he have to work in such dickish ones? As a result, sitting through this movie in one uninterrupted period is as much of a test as anything God puts Evan through, though if you want to see a film about how the forces of religious fanaticism have ridden a powerful wave of faith onto Capitol Hill, “Evan Almighty” does it in the most literal way possible.
Original movie: “Daredevil” (2003)
Spin-off character: Elektra Natchios (Jennifer Garner)
“Evan Almighty” may have played fast and loose with its own franchise rules, but few spin-offs raise as many questions as “Elektra,” in which the titular love interest (played by Jennifer Garner in warrior lingerie) from the middling Ben Affleck superhero attempt “Daredevil” is resurrected in order to be given a middling superhero attempt of her own. For instance: Wasn’t Elektra introduced as the daughter of a billionaire in the first film? Does she really need this new gig as a highly paid assassin? Also: Nary a mention of Daredevil? Despite that whole framed-for-murder-he-didn’t-commit revenge misunderstanding, it really seemed like those two crazy kids could make it, and yet “Elektra” finds Garner happily canoodling with a presumably more affordably salaried Goran Visnjic.
Finally, how’d we get from the recognizable urban world of “Daredevil” to the magical ninja battles of “Elektra”? The shift from stylized but still at least vaguely realistic — Daredevil may have superhuman senses to compensate for his blindness, but they’re given a pseudo-scientific explanation — to folks coming back from the dead, tattoos that turn into real animals, preternaturally gifted martial arts prodigies and toxic goth girls is jarring. Just as much so is the film’s general sense of amnesia, the capper to which is the pair of different actors playing Elektra’s controlling daddy: Erick Avari in the earlier movie, Kurt Max Runte, in flashbacks, in the later. Sure, these storylines are drawn from the comic book source material, but it’s only the overall sense of second runness that unites the two films. “Daredevil” seems a poor man’s “Batman,” and “Elektra” a knock-off of “Ninja Scroll.”
“Beauty Shop” (2005)
Original movie: “Barbershop 2: Back in Business” (2004)
Spin-off character: Gina Norris (Queen Latifah)
With such a big ensemble cast, there were plenty of characters to choose from when it came time to make a “Barbershop” spinoff. Instead, “Barbershop 2: Back in Business” was basically the cinematic equivalent of a backdoor television pilot, where an episode of an existing series is turned over to a new batch of characters who, if popular, then get their own show. Queen Latifah’s appearance in the film as Gina, a hairdresser who once dated the guy (Ice Cube) who owns the titular shop, doesn’t factor into the story in a single meaningful way. She exists only to establish herself as a character who can then lead her own film, “Beauty Shop,” where she moves to Atlanta and opens a salon.
Naturally, everyone who works at Gina’s place is a gender-swapped doppelganger of someone who worked at the original barbershop: cantankerous Cedric the Entertainer becomes cantankerous Alfre Woodard, the barbershop’s lone white employee Troy Garity becomes the lone white employee Alicia Silverstone, and so on. It’s like “Barbershop” in an alternate universe where women reign supreme. Which is fine, though “Barbershop”‘s message about the importance of small business ownership loses something when it’s used by a studio to franchise one of their movies’ successful business model.
“Once a Cop” (1993)
Original movie: “Police Story 3” (1992)
Spin-off character: Inspector Jessica Yang (Michelle Yeoh)
Trimmed down, dubbed into English, renamed “Supercop” and dropped into U.S. theaters in 1996 to capitalize on Jackie Chan’s popularity post “Rumble in the Bronx,” “Police Story 3” is actually the third in an immensely successful Hong Kong franchise that began with 1985’s “Police Story.” It was the first to team Chan up with Michelle Yeoh, who by the time the film hit the States has already established herself as Asia’s top female action star — the year after, she’d make her Hollywood debut in “Tomorrow Never Dies.” Yeoh acts as the straight (wo)man to Chan’s typical lovable goofball in “Police Story 3,” playing a Chinese Interpol director assigned to help Chan’s Hong Kong inspector bust a drug ring, but it’s her willingness to go toe-to-toe with Chan when it comes to insane stunts that makes you see why giving her character her own movie seemed a given.
“Once a Cop” (released here as “Supercop 2”) is a minor letdown, an action film that seems light on action — though what is there is is well-choreographed and impressive. Yeoh’s no comedian, and the film thankfully doesn’t really try to maintain the jokier tone of the “Police Story” movies, with the exception of Chan’s bizarro cameo in which his character appears undercover in drag. But it does seem like the kind of movie you get when you separate out the straightlaced half of a buddy cop pairing, and dumping Yeoh in dialogue-heavy exchanges, car chases and shoot outs seems like a terrible waste of such a physically gifted performer — the film’s most enjoyable moment doesn’t come until it’s almost over, when Yeoh fights a looming white guy who looks at least twice her size. And don’t get us started on the abrupt downer of an ending.
“Get Him to the Greek” (2010)
Original movie: “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” (2008)
Spin-off character: Aldous Snow (Russell Brand)
Though Jonah Hill plays a borderline creepy fan of Russell Brand’s mega rock star Aldous Snow in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” and its Snow-centric spinoff “Get Him to the Greek,” he’s not the same borderline creepy fan. In “Sarah Marshall,” Hill played Matthew, a waiter who enjoys making fun of the recently dumped Peter (Jason Segel) and tries desperately to impress Snow, the frontman for the fictional band Infant Sorrow.
In “Greek,” Peter’s gone and Hill’s top-billed as Aaron Green, a lowly record label employee charged with getting Snow from London to Los Angeles in 72 hours. Along the way, we learn that beneath Snow’s cocksure exterior is a lonely guy still trying to get over his longtime girlfriend Jackie Q (Rose Byrne). That discovery brings “Get Him to the Greek” much closer to “Sarah Marshall”: despite their differences, they’re both movies about how guys cope with the pain of a bad breakup. No explanation’s provided given for how two dudes in this universe look exactly like Jonah Hill, which is probably a good thing. Otherwise, we’d be forced to suffer through a scene where Matthew and Aaron talk on the phone and we’d learn they’re twins or something.
“National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj” (2006)
Original movie: “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder” (2002)
Spin-off character: Taj Mahal Badalandabad (Kal Penn)
If not for Kal Penn’s breakout role in “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” in 2004, it seems likely “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj” would have been exiled to the direct-to-DVD kingdom of forking paths, in which any film can yield infinite barely related spin-offs or sequels or prequels that go largely unwatched (see “S. Darko: A Donnie Darko Tale” — though we don’t suggest you actually see it). But Penn had turned into, if not a major movie star, at least someone who might look vaguely familiar to larger swaths of the country, and so “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj” belly flopped onto an astounding 1,979 screens in late 2006.
At the beginning of “Harold & Kumar,” the film makes a clever dig at the side roles and ethnic caricatures to which its lead actors have so often usually consigned, tracking past typical gross-out comedy bros (played by Ethan Embry and Robert Tinkler) as they ready for a wild weekend, and settling on Harold, the guy who’s staying behind, and who they’ve just dumped a project on because “those Asian guys love crunching numbers.” That type of part was exactly what Penn was stuck with in the original “Van Wilder,” as Ryan Reynolds’ hopeless Indian exchange student assistant, doting on the slacker king in exchange for words of wisdom on how to lose his virginity and speaking in what we’ve heard classified as “the Peter Sellers accent.” Given a movie of his own — despite the title, Reynolds doesn’t appear in “Rise of Taj” at all — Penn is left to rehash the first film’s gross-out jokes and the slobs vs. snobs storyline, which isn’t exactly an improvement.