Few films have better captured the mood of their time than Oliver Stone's Wall Street.
When it appeared in 1987, the yuppie craze was sweeping New York and London, and Stone's heavyhanded moral tale caught perfectly the kind of flashy, vulgar and relentlessly rapacious capitalism that would reap such havoc at the end of the 80s and again two decades later. In fact, some yuppies missed the point of Stone's film entirely and decided Gekko was a hero: they copied his slickback hair and vile dress sense and began loudly discussing "dogshit shares" -- until the bubble burst.
Twenty-three years later an even bigger bubble has popped, making this, on the face of it, a very timely sequel. In fact Stone had been working on a second Wall Street script before the sub-prime mortgage crisis caused a stock market crash in 2008, but once it did Stone made immediate revisions in order to factor in capitalism's latest meltdown.
As Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps opens, it's 2001 and Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) is released from an eight-year stretch in Attica for insider trading. Gekko's career and life are in ruins, but the big question is: Has he learnt anything?
We then cut to the autumn of 2008 and meet one Jake Moore (Shia LaBeouf), a hungry young Wall Street trader and the Bud Fox of this particular piece. Jake works for a top Wall St investment bank called Keller Zabel, whose legendary managing director, Lou Zabel (Frank Langella), has been like a father to him. But when the company's stocks crash to a fraction of their former value in a matter of days, Lou cracks and throws himself under a subway train.
Keller Zabel's problems are just the start of an almost unprecedented stock crash, but Jake becomes convinced that Keller Zabel had been a healthy bank and that some unscrupulous investor has deliberately gone after it. That might just be Bretton James (James Brolin), a powerful but vindictive investment banker whom Lou Zabel had crossed in 2001. Jake craves revenge, but achieving it seems unlikely.
By sheer coincidence, however, Jake's girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) is Gordon Gekko's estranged daughter. She hasn't spoken to Gekko in years, but when Jake goes to hear him speak about a new book he's written, he's impressed. The old boy is as charismatic and crafty as ever, and after Jake introduces himself Gekko quickly realises he's out for revenge.
Gekko has some history with Bretton James himself, and agrees to help Jake get close to him, but only if Jake helps him to re-establish his relationship with his daughter.
Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is self-consciously aware of the shadow of its illustrious predecessor, right down to the reappearance of former Talking Head David Byrne on the soundtrack. Like all Oliver Stone films, the first Wall Street was egregiously unsubtle at times and far from perfect, but it did have a strong narrative drive and was hugely entertaining.
If only the same could be said for this mess. Stone seems to have decided to wax lyrical about the evils of speculation and then throw in a plot as an afterthought. The film at times is shoddily written and at all times shoddily directed, and the fine ensemble acting of a great cast is largely wasted.
Too many of its characters are mere cyphers: for instance there's Jake Moore's ditsy mother (played by Susan Sarandon), who was lured away from nursing into high-risk, real-estate selling and is now hopelessly out of her depth, and a clumsy symbol of how greed infects all classes.
Stone's film stumbles shapelessly on for over two hours, and is rendered watchable and occasionally even entertaining mainly by Michael Douglas' terrific revival of Gekko, a classic screen villain. His Gekko moves and amuses in equal measure: it's a fine performance that deserves a better film.