The Sting II, 1983 (Jackie Gleason/Mac Davis/Teri Garr) MCA/Universal
“I’m just testing your reflexes.”
Either early this year or late last year, we sat down to watch the original Sting. The one everybody talks about with Paul Newman and Robert Redford. I remember thinking this was a story that demanded your attention, but there were some unusual editorial choices. George Roy Hill (working with editor William Reynolds) deliberately omits plot points that would swiftly advance the story as well as keep the audience off-balance as to the intentions of Newman and Redford, so the movie becomes a fun game of visual misdirection.
I remember being shocked at the graphic violence. This was a PG-rated comedy, and there was a scene where a woman (albeit an assassin assigned to dispatch Redford’s character) is shot in the head. It was only slightly grislier than Faye Dunaway being shot through her eye at the end of Chinatown, but it was the ’70s, a more intense time in motion pictures. It took a while for us to get to a sequel, though. Shocking considering the original movie’s $150 million take on a $5 million floater.
The Sting was a rare artistic and commercial success, earning seven Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. David S. Ward would pen a sequel ten years later, but without Redford, Newman, or producers Tony Bill, and Michael and Julia Phillips. The Sting II appears to be only tangentially related to the first movie because of the names used by Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis, Fargo Gondorff and Jake Hooker respectively, clones or second-draft rewrites of Newman’s and Redford’s characters.
Robert Shaw’s Doyle Lonnegan is reprised this time by Oliver Reed; a role he turned down in the original Sting. Con man Jake and his buddy, Eddie (Ron Rifkin) are retained by Gondorff to get revenge on either Lonnegan or Gus Macalinski (Karl Malden) or both; likely suspects in the murder of his good friend, “Kid Colors.” Lonnegan’s only weakness is women, so Jake gets con woman Veronica (Teri Garr) in on the job. There’s a cute scene where Jake and Veronica keep picking each other’s pockets. I miss her every day she isn’t making movies.
The fact that nearly every character seems to be a well-trained con man or woman is deeply troubling to me. In fact, I’d suspect this cinematic universe is made up of nothing but criminals and cops, like a parallel world on Star Trek. I had that feeling watching the first Sting as well. After Gleason embarrasses Malden, Davis, pretending to be a prize fighter, approaches him to “buy out” his boxing contract, and the game begins.
The idea here is to get Malden to make a huge wager on Davis who tells him he has no intention of throwing a fight, When Lonnegan tips him off that he’s been had, Malden quickly scrambles to reverse the bet and puts all his money on Davis’s opponent. This goes back and forth in classic switcheroo fashion. The sequel isn’t all that bad. The cast is engaging, particularly Garr and Gleason. Country/Western legend* Davis lacks the charm of Newman and Redford. He has a constant look on his face like he knows he doesn’t belong in this movie.
The production design and photography are excellent, but those editorial choices I referenced are not on display here. We know exactly what’s going to happen because the characters (and the editor) make the mistake of making the audience complicit in Gleason’s plans. The first movie cons us. The second movie brings us in on the con. This is a somewhat unimaginative paint-by-numbers revenge/con artist fantasy, and while the audience is with the characters every step of the way, it’s still not a terrible sequel.
This is an odorless, colorless Sting, like New Coke, this is New Sting; a familiar package but a different taste that will ultimately disappoint anyone expecting something better than the “real thing.” Lalo Schifrin’s score (adapting Scott Joplin’s iconic “The Entertainer” ad nauseum) earned an Academy Award nomination. It is played incessantly and inappropriately throughout the entire movie, and to a horribly repetitive degree.
*Lubbock native Davis was a prolific songwriter and recording artist before making his acting debut in North Dallas Forty, starring opposite Nick Nolte and John Matuszak. He co-wrote several hit songs for Elvis Presley including “In the Ghetto” and “A Little Less Conversation.” Davis passed away in September of 2020.