If growing up in the 80s taught me anything it was that any film that was even moderately successful deserved a sequel, and the only thing better than a sequel was a full blown trilogy. There’s something magical (in the unicorn and rainbow kind of way) about the movie trilogy format that I can’t quite put my finger on, but it’s there all the same. Something satisfying. Personally I can point to the experience of growing up with the three original Star Wars films as a point of reference. In some form, every trilogy I watch is compared to these three films; in particular to their structure of a first film that works as a stand alone piece (in case of box office failure and no sequel money), a second film that enriches the characters and paints a much bigger picture for the world, and a third film which brings a sense of closure to the overarching plot while also giving the characters one more wild adventure.
There seemed to be an endless stream of trilogies that I cherished in and around the 80s. The Back to the Future films, the Karate Kid flicks, the hillbilly/mutant Jason flicks (Friday the 13th parts 2-4), the Zombie Jason flicks (Friday the 13th parts 6-8), the Bad News Bears flicks, the Look Who’s Talking flicks, the Mad Max flicks, the Naked Gun flicks, the Poltergeist films, and the Meatballs films. That’s not including other film series that broke into more sequels like the Superman or the Rocky films. Heck, in doing some research for this crossover I discovered that there was even a trilogy that I was unaware of, Cannonball I, II, and Speed Zone! I loved the first two and now I have to track down and see the third.
Recently though, I’ve been thinking a lot about conceptual trilogies, film series that aren’t directly connected by characters or story, but have other threads that tie them together. There are a lot of series written by the same author or that were all filmed by the same director that get a lot of attention; for instance Sergio Leone’s Dollars/Man with No Name trilogy (Fist Full of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), his epic America trilogy (Once Upon a Time in the West, Fist Full of Dynamite, and Once Upon a Time in America), or John Carpenter’s Apocalypse trilogy (The Thing, Prince of Darkness, and In the Mouth of Madness.) But there are also a lot of films that just feel like they belong together because of interesting themes and overall concept. Here are a few of my favorites…
The Ralph Macchio Fight Trilogy
There are only a handful of films starring Mr. Macchio throughout the 80s as he was quickly typecast as Daniel LaRusso (not a terrible fate), but of the films that he did make there seems to be a clear through-line of scrapping against all forms of bullies.
Starting in 1983 with Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation of The Outsiders, Ralph Macchio stars as Johnny Cade, a 16 year-old greaser runt who has had enough and is ready to pop. In the film, Macchio’s Johnny comes to the aid of his friend Ponyboy (played by C. Thomas Howell) who is being attacked by a group of Socs (the rich, douchey, pre-suburbanites of the 50s) because he was hanging out with “their girls”. Johnny stabs and kills one of the Socs in the scuffle and then he and Ponyboy go on the lam hiding from the law. Things don’t end well for Johnny, but he does save a bunch of kids from a burning building, so I guess there’s that…
The second film in the Fight trilogy is by far Macchios most famous and probably my favorite film of the 80s, 1984’s The Karate Kid. Starring as Daniel LaRusso, a kid who moves from Newark, NJ, to Reseda in California and then proceeds to get his butt kicked by bullies right and left. One chance meeting with the apartment’s reclusive superintendent later and we’re on the awesome roller coaster ride of banzai-tree-trimming, catching flies with chopsticks, waxing cars, painting decks, and beating the living shit out of a bunch of asshole bullies in skeleton costumes. Not only did the film give us the ultimate douche in Billy Zabka’s Jonny Lawrence, but it also provided the best fight song in the history of all time, Joe Esposito’s You’re the Best. It’s to fighting what Barry White is to love making.
The final film in the Fight trilogy is the under-seen 1986 Walter Hill flick Crossroads, starring Macchio as Eugene Martone, a young guitar prodigy searching for the legendary Robert Johnson’s (he of the musical deal with the devil fame) one lost song. Though there are a couple of dust-ups in the flick, the fighting all takes place with guitars, in particular in the culmination of the film where Martone accepts a challenge from the devil to out guitar his pet project, rock star Jack Butler (playing with a crazed yet entertaining relish by Steve Vai.) It seems that in battling the Devil, there is no greater weapon that soulful rock and roll (Just ask Charlie Daniels, the Kids in the Hall, or Tenacious D.)
Crossroads brings me to another themed series…
The Walter Hill Musical Battle Trilogy
Walter Hill is one of those directors that never broke as big as his resume deserves, though he has been a part of some pretty big projects including the first Alien film and the HBO Tales From the Crypt television series. His eye for style and interesting characters is amazing and I can only hope more people pick up his films as time goes on. For this trilogy I’ll go in reverse seeing as I’ve already mentioned the culminating flick, Crossroads.
The middle film in the Musical Battle trilogy is the insane 1984 flick Streets of Fire. Starring Michael Pare as Tom Cody, an ex-soldier turned hero for hire who is called back to his home town when his ex-girlfriend, rock star Ellen Aim (played by Diane Lane), is kidnapped by Raven Shaddock, leader of a local gang called the Bombers (played with wicked insanity by Willem Dafoe.) Cody, along with another ex-soldier McCoy and Ellen’s manager/boyfriend Billy Fish (Rick Moranis in a typecast-breaking performance as a fast talking ass), take on the Bombers and rescue Ellen in a film noir inspired rock opera that culminates in one heck of a kick ass sledge hammer fight that needs to be seen to be believed. This film drips style much in the same way that Tim Burton or Wes Anderson flicks do. Hill is a master of creating unique alternate universes that exist just on the edge of reality, and in Streets of Fire it can be the 50s and the 80s as the same time.
The first flick in this Musical Battle trilogy is probably Hill’s most famous film, 1979’s The Warriors, which is one of those movies that people love, hate, or love to hate. Personally I love it. The film is loosely based on the Anabasis an account of a battalion of Greek soldiers, lead by Xenophon, from Sardes to the Black Sea through hundreds of miles of enemy territory. In the film, Cyrus, the leader of the most powerful gang in New York calls for a peaceful meeting between all the gangs in the city (60,000 strong), in an effort to rally together against the police and the system. Luther (played by a psychotic David Patrick Kelly), uses this opportunity to assassinate Cyrus, and in the ensuing chaos blames the act on the Warriors, who then have to travel through all sorts of enemy territory in trying to get back to their home turf at Coney Island. The film is punctuated by updates given by a faceless mouth on the radio informing the various gangs of the whereabouts of the Warriors as they try to evade battle. Though it’s not an out and out rock opera, it has many of operatic qualities and a very similar visual panache.
The Alternative/Extreme Sports Trilogy
Probably my favorite themed film series from the 80s has to be The Alternative/Extreme Sports Trilogy made up of Rad, Thrashin’, and North Shore. Each film centers on one of the big sports crazes of the 80s including BMX, skateboarding, and surfing respectively. All of them have similar plots, when a hometown boy (who is pretty damn good at what they do), is confronted with the idea of competing in a tournament that will pit them against the biggest assholes each past-time has to offer. Growing up in Florida in the 1980s I was smack dab in the middle of all three of these crazes, and even though I never tried my hand at surfing I was enamored with all three.
In 1986’s Rad, Cru Jones has to battle against the insufferable Bart Taylor (played by real like Olympian Bart Conner) at Hell Track, along the way winning the hart of pro racer Christian (Full House’s Lori Loughlin.)
1986 also brought us the skateboarding classic Thrashin’. Starring Josh Brolin as Cory Webster, the plot centers around a friend of a group of local skaters from the Valley who has come to Los Angles to complete in a crazy high speed downhill race. Webster unfortunately bumps into a insane local gang of punk-ish skaters called the Daggers, who are led by Hook (played by Robert Russler.) Of course Cory falls in love with Hook’s more normal sister Chrissy, and the two play Romeo and Juliet while mixing it up with the Daggers (which means plenty of skateboard jousting.)
Lastly we have 1987’s North Shore, which features Matt Adler as Rick Kane, a surfer from Arizona who has never really had a chance to hone his chops in a real ocean. He wins a local competition and finds himself in Hawaii where noting is quite like it seems or he expected. Battling against the Hui (locals) on the waves, he ends up simultaneously falling in love with Kiani (Nia Peeples) and being mentored by Chandler, a transplanted soul-surfing guru. Rick decides that the only way he can prove himself is by winning a surfing competition called the Banzai Pipeline.
The last (but certainly not least) set of films is…
The William Zabka Bully Trilogy
I’ve already talked about the Karate Kid (where Zabka plays the leg-sweeping bully we all love to hate, Johnny Lawrence), but he also goes on to play douches in two other 80s flicks, 1985’s Just One of the Guys, and 1986’s Back to School.
Just One of the Guys is my favorite hidden gem movie of the 80s that I must have seen on cable two trillion times. Starring Joyce Hyser as Terry Griffith, an aspiring teenaged journalist who can’t seem to get any respect because she’s a shapely woman. Terry hatches a scheme to enroll in another high school (seeing as her journalism teacher has already dismissed her talent), only this time she decides to start cross dressing as a boy so that she can get the respect she deserves for her work. In the flick Terry is basically playing the Daniel LaRusso role from the Karate Kid, but instead of getting beaten up by Billy Zabka’s Greg Tolan, she mentors a geeky guy who can’t seem to get a date, Rick (played by Clayton Rohner.) Rick has a crush on Tolan’s girlfriend Deborah, and therein lies the Zabka douchery. Though it’s a slight step down from Johnny Lawrence, Greg Tolan is still a pretty entertaining asshole and it’s fun to see him get his ass kicked by a girl, her little brother and eventually Rick as well. Whereas in the Karate Kid Zabka was more likely to bust up your ghetto blaster and chase you down with a dirtbike, in Just one of the Guys his coup de grace comes in various forms of exercising with nerds and geeks. Between showing off his wedgie-weight-lifting, and his personal favorite lunch table lifting, Zabka had a lot of fun as the ultimate P.E. bully.
Zabka’s weakest bully performance is in Back to School, the Rodney Dangerfield comedy where he plays Thorton Melon, the owner of a successful string of big & tall shops who decides that the only way he can get close to his son is by enrolling in college to be near him. Zabka plays Chas Osborne, who is the alpha male on the college swim team, and the rival of Thorton’s son Jason (played by Christine’s Keith Gordon.) Honestly, Zabka is barely in the film and even though he really is supposed to be a douche, he’s kind of justified in his asshole-ery. He’s a great diver, and he doesn’t even really bully Jason all that much, so when his dive is sabotaged by a young Robert Downey Jr. (playing Jason’s best friend), it’s kind of sad. Though he’s still a douche, I feel sorry for his character and I think it goes a long way to redeeming his much worse bully past.
So, what are some other unofficial trilogies?