Michael Douglas returns to the 1987 role, which won him the Oscar. This new film picks up 20 years later upon Douglas's character of Gordon Gekko being released from prison for his various inside trading and financial crimes. While this film can stand by itself as semi-commentary on America's recent financial crisis in 2008, it is also a clever sequel that works as director Oliver Stone's first sequel and one of the few sequels I've ever seen where the audience is expected and in fact wants to follow the villain from the first film.
For those who haven't seen or don't remember the first film, Wall Street centered on a young stock broker in New York City named Bud Fox, played by Charlie Sheen who starred in Oliver Stone's Platoon. Bud Fox is struggling in the stock exchange and is not making enough money as he wants, so he goes to Gordon Gekko to pitch him a stock trade. Gekko is one of the most successful, most powerful and most cut-throat financial dealers in the United States. Gekko turns Bud Fox down until Bud Fox offers him some inside information about the trade because Bud Fox's father is involved with the company. This leads to Gekko manipulating Bud Fox into doing other illegal things, as he goes about committing hostile takeovers, corporate raids and speculation.
In this sequel, Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) plays Jake Moore, which is essentially the Charlie Sheen role refashioned. Like Bud Fox, Jake also rides a motorcycle, but instead Jake wears a slicker, leather jacket. Like Bud Fox, Jake is an up-and-coming stock trader, but instead Jake is a bit more successful and a bit more of a hotshot at the outset. Whereas we watched Bud Fox start low and rise in the game, here we watch Jake start high and only move in the opposite direction. Like Bud Fox, Jake has a single parent with whom he struggles, but instead Jake butts heads with his real estate-selling mother.
At the beginning, Jake has a girlfriend, a fiancee. Her name is Winnie, and she's played by Carey Mulligan (An Education). Winnie runs a website that promotes environmentalism and that goes against corporate greed and Wall Street shenanigans that lead to pollution and excessive waste. Winnie is apparently very successful. She's also apparently the daughter of Gordon Gekko. However, Winnie Gekko is very much estranged from her father. She more than likely hasn't spoken to him in years. Once Jake learns that Gordon is out of prison and out promoting a new book, Jake decides to bring the father and daughter back together.
Unfortunately, it's the fall of 2008 and the American financial crisis hits. Jake's mentor, Louis Zabel, played by Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon), commits suicide. Jake is devastated, but becomes enraged when he learns that Zabel's death was the result of so-called Wall Street shenanigans perpetrated by a man named Bretton James, played by Josh Brolin (No Country for Old Men and W). Jake becomes so enraged that he wants revenge against Bretton. Bretton is a very powerful man, so in order to take him down, Jake enlists the help of Gordon. This help may come at a cost, a steep one.
LaBeouf is roughly the same age as Sheen was when he first starred in the original film. Yet, Sheen seemed older than LaBeouf does. LaBeouf is a good actor and can stand strong against heavyweights like Douglas and Langella, but he stills come off as a little boyish. I'm not sure I totally bought him as this hotshot stock broker. Despite his too youthful look, his performance is still very engaging.
Of course, he's eclipsed anytime Michael Douglas steps into the scene. Within a few minutes of Douglas' reclaiming of Gekko onscreen, the ruthlessness with which he left audiences over two decades ago melts away. Any sympathy for him comes with hesitancy, but almost immediately Douglas' charm as Gekko is winsome. You don't think of him as the shark who quotes Sun Tzu but perhaps as an owl who hoots Confucius, yet still suave and stealth.
At first, Douglas seems effortless and could be what's considered a caricature, but there was a scene where Gekko confronts Winnie and they talk about the death of Gekko's son. We learn that Gekko's son had a drug problem. With Douglas' real-life son, Cameron, a sufferer of drug abuse, Douglas' performance is especially moving. There were definite echoes of Douglas' real-life probably coming through and makes him very much believable.
Oliver Stone directs this piece using a lot of the same tricks as before to move us through the ins and outs of Wall Street and especially move us around the fact that the financial crisis is not cinematically easy to explain. Writers Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff provide an opportunity at the beginning where they could have explained the financial crisis. The opportunity comes in the form of a speech that Gekko delivers at a seminar in front of eager young business men and women. Douglas is good enough to sell it and revel in the greed that has taken over America. Except, instead of letting Douglas give the speech and explain to everyone as he did in the original film in the speech where Gekko proudly proclaimed, "Greed is good," Stone edits this opportunity into a montage of cross-dissolves of Gekko at a podium, occasionally throwing out phrases like "the mother of all evil is speculation" and "steroid banking." It's simply not as powerful as before.
Stone utilizes multiples boxes as before. Stone even makes a cameo as he did before. Stone also feels the need to inject a lot of needless action. He does so as almost a way of balancing the very dry Wall Street deal-making stuff. Except, they're not action scenes. They're scenes where two people merely talk but Stone thinks that if he puts it in a shaky subway or careening cab ride that that will excite things. It doesn't. It just makes the scene annoying. It was like Stone didn't trust that limiting this story to the revenge plot and Gekko's insidiousness was enough.
This is perhaps rightly so because the revenge story is rather lame. If it were dropped, and the focus was square on the relationship between Gekko, his daughter, and his potential son-in-law, that would have been enough, and, the revenge plot would not have been missed. Yet, this is negligible. Having the character of Gekko back to play is too much fun to pass over.