It's been 23 years since the last sighting, but the reappearance of the lesser-spotted Gekko - homo cupiditas boni - can now be confirmed. He's been lesser-spotted for a reason, having spent eight years in jail, and at the start of Oliver Stone's sequel Money Never Sleeps, in 2001, we watch the disgraced Wall Street trader gather up the rubble of his possessions, including a mobile phone the size of a steam-iron, and emerge from the prison gates to be met by... nobody at all. Does Gekko look chastened by his incarceration, or humbled by the absence of greeters? No, he does not. Played, once again, by Michael Douglas, he looks bedraggled, but also hawkish and unillusioned.
Cherish these opening moments, because that's all we'll be seeing of the film's star attraction for another 40 minutes. Instead, this lumbering and mismanaged follow-up shifts to 2008 to focus upon a young hotshot trader, named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who's using his millions to help finance an alternative energy project. As if that weren't right-on enough, his girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) works for a cool news website run by idealists in trainers. The earliest rumblings of the financial crash are heard when Jake's boss and mentor (Frank Langella) is forced to sell off his company at a huge loss and thereafter takes the traditional exit of ruined moneymen in front of an oncoming train. Culpability lies at the door of a corporate barracuda named Bretton James, played with satanic relish by Josh Brolin, yet the only thing on our minds during this set-up is: where's Gordon? You don't attend the Gekko comeback party to spend all night with the bit players.
At first I thought Stone was playing a canny long game, keeping the monster offstage in much the way Sweet Smell of Success rationed the appearances of Burt Lancaster as the vicious gossip columnist. Even when not seen, he was felt to be everywhere. The script (by Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff) links Gekko to Jake by means of Winnie, who happens to be Gekko's estranged daughter. In exchange for helping him bring down Bretton James, Jake must engineer a rapprochement between father and daughter. And from the pained look on Winnie's face whenever the old man's name comes up that's going to be one hell of a diplomacy mission. Once Gekko returns to the centre of the frame - he's now in reputation rehab as a business guru with a book to promote - the film perks up. He's wrinklier, of course, but the grey in his hair suits him, and he dresses better now. Those 1980s braces and white-collared striped shirts really were the outfit of a modern Mephistopheles. Yet still that glint in his eye and the curl to his lip indicate he will be nobody's fool.
Whatever else it did, the original Wall Street caught a historical moment and coined a memorable catchphrase or two. "Greed is good" got the bull's-eye, and "Lunch is for wimps" wasn't bad, either. Here, the writers come up with "Money is the bitch that never sleeps", which I can safely predict will not be quoted 23 years from now. And however sneaky the allusions to the calamitous hubris of Lehman Brothers and Goldman Sachs, the film does not gain in energy or authority from belatedly sticking it to the banks. It's in the texture of character and drama, not real life, where this sequel falls short. LaBeouf, blandly handsome, has neither the naughty charm of an operator nor the galumphing innocence of a dupe - say what you like about Charlie Sheen (Heidi Fleiss already has), but he made Bud Fox in the earlier film a likeable protege/nemesis to Gekko. Sheen sends himself up in a 90-second cameo at a charity fundraiser here, and it's a chuckle. Susan Sarandon has an underwritten and showy role as Jake's real-estate agent mother, drowning in debt. Carey Mulligan, the cast's hot property, will never again (I hope) be as drippy as she is here - you don't buy her as a scion of wealth, nor even as particularly American. Josh Brolin at least has the self-satisfied air of a Master of the Universe, though he didn't have to wear such distractingly awful clothes for us to find him objectionable.
It's an altogether less baleful film than one might have expected, signalled throughout by David Byrne's annoyingly jaunty score. Stone appears to be caught in about three minds as to what his moral should be, and shuffles together about four different endings, as if to say - pick a card, any card. This arises almost entirely from the script's indecision about Gekko himself. There's a natural temptation to punish a man who is emblematic of the duplicity and unscrupulousness of modern finance - our yearning for a bankers' comeuppance is very raw. On the other hand, Stone knows that the reason we're interested in this sequel is to see how Gekko will play the game. It's not just that he's a great antihero: it's that his wit, cynicism and shadowy allure simply overwhelm the blandness surrounding him. He is the game, period.
The film dithers over how his destiny should play out, offering us the regretful father, the post-crash moralist, and the lizard king with a deadly tongue. Which Gekko should it back? Can it fudge a compromise between all three? Stone knows that the devil still has the best tunes, and Douglas looks up for doing his dirty work. But the film's writers have wimped out of giving him his due. Maybe they were having lunch.
(12A) 132 mins, Oliver Stone