If Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps had come out in 1991 or 1995 one could have easily come to the conclusion that it was an act of greed and while tongue in groove with the motif of the original film, it would have made no sense in relation to the story and characters. Arguably Oliver Stone’s most effectively mainstream film, the first Wall Street was a perfect fit for its time and very symbolic of that era but part of its charm was its very anticlimactic and downbeat ending and the manner in which it juggled its two leading mean. While it celebrated the excess of the 1980’s it also brought the reckoning down hard on its characters. A sequel would have been disingenuous and though “Greed is Good” was the overriding catchphrase from the movie, the film’s message certainly wasn’t to celebrate such a ruthless and damaging policy.

A sequel in 2010 is a totally different animal. Somehow it seems acceptable. Essential, really. This isn’t a typical franchise picture by sheer virtue of the fact that no one expected it, none of the principals needed it, and its financial prospects were far from assured. The stakes are different for the film very much as the stakes are different in the real financial world that inspires these kind of movies. Wall Street is a dinosaur now, and not one of the toothy carnivores. Looking back on it brings a sort of nostalgia towards a simpler time where the villains stood up front and rejoiced in their villainy. Not today. You could say we need Gordon Gekko now more than ever.

This new film could have had razor sharp claws and an appetite for destruction or been one of those creatures who exist only to be devoured by the big boys. In short, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a wildcard. At least conceptually.

Oliver Stone’s first sequel takes Michael Douglas’s award-winning signature character, an assured “Master of the Universe” in his heyday, and strips him of his power. Years in prison have cost him his fortune, his family, and his grip on the steering wheel in the business in which he was a virtuoso. When we meet him he’s coming out of of the slammer with his empty money clip and ancient cell phone, two bits of paraphernalia that succinctly sum him up. He’s not the slick 1987 incarnation of Michael Douglas but the current model who still retains the upper crust aura but wears the mileage visibly like a badge and reminder that all good things fade. Gordon Gekko is the worst thing he could possibly be. Irrelevant. In the wake of Bernie Madoff and his ilk he’s not a supervillian. He’s a footnote, and knowing the character that’s a fate worse than death.

Shia LaBeouf is Jake Moore, further along in his development cycle than Charlie Sheen’s Bud Fox from the first film and happily settled down with a nice girl named Winnie (Carey Mulligan). He’s still impressionable but he’s not looking for a gravy train and he has a wise mentor in the person of Frank Langella’s Louis Zabel keeping him in line. Jake doesn’t flinch when handed checks of a million dollars. It’s all part of the plan, and he is very good in his little corner of the financial world. What he doesn’t realize is that the pressure of the oncoming market collapse not only wears heavily on Zabel, it weighs heavily on those who seek to crush Zabel. Josh Brolin’s Bretton James is first in line and his firm is ferocious in leveraging the various factions in the investment world in their ascent, crushing each and all in their path. Zabel’s tenure and warm heart carry little juice in the modern financial world and when his firm falls Jake has a front row seat. To Jake, Bretton James is Public Enemy #1 and to his surprise there’s another person who shares a severe disdain for the man: the recently paroled Gordon Gekko. Compounding the issue is the fact that the last name of the nice girl Jake’s in love with is Gekko, and the only thing seemingly as interesting to making money for Gordon is reconciling with his estranged little girl. I think you see where this is going.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is at its best when the film centers on the machinations of the big players in the story. The love story doesn’t pack enough punch to warrant as much screen time as it gets and I can’t imagine anyone is going to buy a ticket to see how the reptilian Gordon Gekko’s relationship with his daughter is. These films are about money and power and the lengths in which men will go to wield them. Michael Douglas in the skin of Gordon Gekko has a certain oily magnetism that is irresistible, and watching him mentor Shia LeBeouf is a lot of fun and quite engaging. Especially knowing that Gekko has ulterior motives and wondering just how and when they’ll manifest. Josh Brolin’s Bretton James is a great villain made even better by the actor, who if given more emphasis and screen time could have given Gordon Gekko’s mantle a nice shaking. James is at the top of the world and seeing the balance of smug indifference and cornered animal ferocity in him makes for excellent entertainment. The ground is coming apart under his feet and watching him dodge fate is also terrific entertainment. Were the film primarily about these three men sparring it could be a classic on par with the original film. There are a handful of scenes where the three leading actors accomplish so much with dialogue (from a script by Allen Loeb and Stephen Schiff) that it makes it easier to forgive some of the story’s weaker elements. Easier to forgive but not absolve. There are a few tangents and decision over the course of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps that keep it from being a very good movie.

When you have actors like Michael Douglas, Josh Brolin, and Shia LeBeouf and a director like Oliver Stone (who in his prime could outshoot 95% of his peers), there’s no need for motorcycle races. There’s no need for a moment like the horrible one near the film’s climax where three principal characters happen to show up at the same address at the same time for a heartfelt reunion. There’s actually no need for an entire subplot involving Gordon Gekko trekking to England. The main thrust of the business side of the film’s plot is energy and the future tech involved in making it happen. That’s a major issue in the real world but it only serves as a MacGuffin here. In many ways that element to the story could have added the same kind of valuable emotion the blue collar airline subplot did for the first film but instead it feels irrelevant and tacked on.

Though there are some (albeit too few) terrific scenes of the verbal sparring between characters that makes movies like this pop, the potential is squandered by a script that doesn’t really have all the makings of a Wall Street movie. Too much time is spent on the relationship between Jake and Winnie and not enough on the one between Jake and Gordon, and the history between Gordon and Bretton. Too little is spent making the ‘twists’ in the film’s second half seem believable.  The film looks good, the actors are all up to the task, and Oliver Stone seems to be focused for the first time in years but the script just isn’t there. This delightful wildcard of a movie represented a perfect opportunity to make a prestige film into an event film. It failed at that and though I still enjoy and recommend it Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not symbolic of this era in any way other than the fact it squanders a massive opportunity.

Though I was worried that Shia wasn’t mature enough to hold his own in this shark tank, his leading role (Douglas has the supporting role here) is handled quite well and it’s the first time the actor feels like a grown up onscreen. He’s still a ways off from totally selling it but the same was said for Leonardo DiCaprio and I’d say he’s doing alright for himself. Jake’s a good character for LaBeouf and it bodes well for him to be doing movies where he gets to actually act with actual actors. His energy and enthusiasm does wonders for the film, especially in the first half where Josh Brolin is primarily a nonfactor. LeBeouf, Douglas, and Brolin are excellent together and make the film worth watching. Mulligan seems out of place. Susan Sarandon’s role is a distraction at best. Eli Wallach is great to see onscreen but he serves more as a bit of unintentional comedy than anything else. It’s great to see the excellent character actor John Bedford Lloyd in a nice supporting role as well as the deliciously odd Austin Pendleton.

While it could have been a big movie on every level, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps ultimately is small. Worth seeing as a nice unassuming time at the movies but not a worthy continuation on the story of Gordon Gekko. It is entertaining and has some very good moments and if it were just a movie called Money Never Sleeps it’d be a fun diversion that faded from memory on the ride home fromt he theater. But it’s called Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,and in retrospect maybe the whole franchise could have used a little more rest.

7 out of 10