I’ve mentioned before that my parents were never really big movie people. However, there were a few movies that they made sure me and my siblings saw. These were among the first movies that they rented when we got our first VCR, Christmas 1983. One of the films they made sure we watched was the Best Picture winning The Sting. To this day that film is still one of my favorites. It wasn’t until recently, though, that I saw the often forgotten sequel to that film, which came 10 years later with a completely different cast. Here comes 1983’s The Sting II.
Six years after the events of the first film, a big shot banker/gangster called Lonnegan (Oliver Reed) is seeking revenge over a group of con men who got the best of him all those years ago. As the film opens we see him responsible for the death of one in particular named Kid Colors, but his gang puts the word out that a racketeer, Gus Macalinski (Karl Malden), is the man responsible. This attracts the attention of con man Fargo (no longer Henry?) Gondorff (Jackie Gleason) and his one-time protege, Jake (no longer Johnny) Hooker (Mac Davis).
Gondorff and Hooker decide to go after Macalinski with a boxing con, which ends up involving Hooker taking on the role of the boxer on the take. Apparently he has some background in the ring which we were never privy to in the first film. For the scam they also enlist the help of a con woman named Veronica (Teri Garr), who is also romancing Hooker. Things move forward smoothly with the con, but then takes an unexpected turn. So it seems that Lonnegan may have the upper hand and that the con men are the ones being conned.
I sure don’t envy the folks tasked with making the Sting II. After all, the original is an Oscar winning classic starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Now, those leading men are traded for Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis. Yes, Mac Davis…as in the guy who sings “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me.” These two leads couldn’t be more different than their predecessors if they had six-foot long tails sprouting out of their back sides. Plus, it’s unclear as to if these are supposed to be the same characters Newman and Redford played in the first film. Davis is playing Jake Hooker rather than Johnny, as Redford’s character was called. Those names are at least somewhat similar, but Newman’s Henry becomes Fargo as played by Gleason. What the!?!? Other names are twisted around a bit, too. I assume that Kid Colors, murdered at the beginning of the film, is supposed to be Kid Twist from the original, and for some reason Lonnegan is only referred to by his surname. His first name, Doyle, is never mentioned in the film or even in the end credits. Some have suggested that these are all completely different characters than the first film, which is a ridiculous suggestion. Are we really supposed to believe that a different guy with the last name Gondorff and a different guy with the last name Hooker also happen to be con men and once upon a time teamed up to take down a totally different guy named Lonnegan? We moviegoers may be dumb but we’re not THAT dumb. All this to say that without Newman and Redford this should’ve just been called Another Sting and been about a new bunch of grifters.
Ultimately, it’s the inevitable comparisons to the first film that make this film so hard to get on board with. The story itself is passable, the con is at least moderately interesting, and the script is still penned by the writer of the original, David S. Ward. We’ve also got, for the most part, an interesting cast, but the shadow cast by the originals is daunting. Jackie Gleason is a wonderful actor and I’d love to see him in a film as a big time con man, but not if it means redefining a role canonized by Paul Newman. As for Mac Davis, he’s a fine singer, he had a great guest star appearance on The Muppet Show, but Robert Redford he ain’t. Oliver Reed at least comes close to what Robert Shaw brought to the role of Lonnegan in the first film, but still it’s just not what it should be. As for the new characters, they actually outshine the reimagined characters we already knew. Teri Garr is likable in that typical Teri Garr way and Karl Malden makes an for an intimidating villain. There is actually a very good sequence where Gleason and Malden spar with each other as they each attempt to win the attention of Garr. Had the rest of the film been as sharp as this sequence we might have had something special.
The Sting II is a frustrating experience. Allowed to stand on its own, with no connection to the 73 film, this may have been slightly passable movie. As it is, though, there’s so much that will cause even the casual fan of the original film to boil. Remember in the first film how the way Paul Newman’s character signaled to other grifters that the con was on was to brush his finger on the side of his nose? There’s a whole montage sequence showing this. That comes back in this film with another montage, but this time the gesture is Gleason taking a finger and pointing to the side of his nose. It looks really weird. This subtle difference is a perfect illustration of how this film tries so hard to be like its predecessor but misses the mark so severely.