SEQUELS are the bane of summer moviegoing. Film after film arrives on your local multiplex marquee with a number appended to its title - usually a roman numeral, although this season arabics are in vogue - selling a commodity that's tried, tested, and guaranteed to be exactly what audiences expect. No risks. No surprises. And most of the time, no excitement. Sequels have a long history in Hollywood, going back to the days when seemingly endless strings of Andy Hardy and Francis the Talking Mule pictures filled out low-budget double bills. The wave of modern sequels began with ``The Godfather Part II'' in 1974, and hasn't let up since. Some examples, including the second ``Godfather'' itself, have equalled or outdone their progenitors in quality and popularity. Others, such as the cranked-out ``Halloween'' and ``Friday the 13th'' series, have been running on empty for years.
This season has brought five major sequels so far, and while there's not a first-rate film among them, they provide an interesting overview of possibilities offered by the breed:
``Another 48 Hrs'' - the sequel as remake. This film is an exercise in by-the-numbers moviemaking - and worse, the filmmakers don't mind using the exact same numbers as last time, since they obviously add up at the box-office. Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte reprise their roles as, respectively, a criminal and a cop who pool their talents to crack a major case. The sequel capitalizes on the same odd-couple contrasts as the original ``48 Hrs.'' eight years ago: black-white, bad guy-good guy, reluctant-obsessed, and so forth. The picture has a heavy charge of nasty energy, courtesy of director Walter Hill, who has a time-tested talent for sketching brutally believable characters and kinetic montages of bone-crunching action.
``Die Hard 2''- the sequel as nostalgia. This flick is full of talk about the first ``Die Hard,'' so if you didn't see the original, you might be confused at times. (The same problem dogged a couple of the ``Star Trek'' pictures, but nobody seemed to mind, probably because everyone had seen the earlier entries.) What's interesting is that none of the characters appear to have enjoyed being chased, shot at, exploded, and so forth in Part 1 - yet here they are again, and not one yells ``Lemme outa here!'' when the new round of chasing, shooting, and exploding starts up. ``Die Hard 2'' is not only an official sequel to ``Die Hard''; it's also an unofficial sequel to the ``Airport'' series of the '70s, with Bruce Willis vanquishing a band of terrorists while his wife sweats it out in a plane circling above. The movie has a certain sociological interest, since it's the first '90s film with right-wing villains who spout ``communist menace'' clich'es, meant to show how psychotic they are. Aside from this novelty, there's little to attract anyone but fans of Mr. Willis, which means theaters should be packed for a long time. Renny Harlin was the director of the summer's most expensive film, with a budget estimated as high as $60 million.
``Back to the Future Part III'' - the sequel as new departure. ``Part III'' has a bit more class than its cousins this season, as you can tell by its elegant roman numeral; it also has less of the mean-spirited violence that marks most of the current sequel crop. The biggest surprise is that it's a western - a genre that hasn't exactly been burning up the screen lately - and a tasty western, at that. It's also a fantasy, of course, complete with the time-traveling automobile that transports hero Marty and his mad-scientist sidekick into the kind of adventure that John Wayne used to have in movies of old. The picture was directed by Robert Zemeckis from Bob Gale's screenplay; they gave us the marvelous Part 1 of the ``Back to the Future'' series and also the frantic but disappointing Part 2, which was shot simultaneously with the current installment. Here they borrow about equally from two western masters, John Ford and Sergio Leone, perhaps the best models a filmmaker could have. Christopher Lloyd and Michael J. Fox reprise their usual roles, and Mary Steenburgen is her usual appealing self as Doc Brown's love interest.
``Gremlins 2 The New Batch'' - the sequel as avant-garde cinema. ``Gremlins 2'' is the only postmodern picture to sneak into mainstream theaters this summer: In addition to causing crazy problems for the human heroes, the mischievous title characters parody all kinds of movies, styles, and cinematic conventions - even managing to knock their own movie clear off the screen at one point. If more of the picture were devoted to these Pirandellian shenanigans, it would be a nonstop delight. As it stands, the first half is peppered with good-natured satire aimed at the Donald Trump-Ted Turner school of millionaires; the second half - when the gremlins take over - is more inventive and explosive, but also disappointing when true ingenuity gives way to mere sound, fury, and cartoonish gore. Joe Dante directed from Charlie Haas's screenplay.
``Robocop 2'' - the sequel as unmitigated disaster. This film is the one current sequel so cold and clanky that it seems to have alienated its own ready-made audience, namely the heavy-metal fans who made the first ``Robocop'' a smash hit. As in the original, there's a heavy overlay of social satire, but this time it seems more malicious than barbed - painting such a nightmarish portrait of urban America, in general, and Detroit, in particular, that the good guy's crusade against crime seems more futile than heroic. There's also lot of crabbed humor aimed at ``do-gooders'' who wish Robocop would counsel villains instead of shooting them down. Directed by Irvin Kershner, the picture is currently making big money with its technically sharp images of robots and humans blasting each other with high-tech weaponry. Its box-office boom probably won't last, though. And here's hoping that nobody mistakes its snarling jokes for witty commentary on social problems.
For moviegoers who're just getting warmed up, there's a quartet of sequels still to come. ``Young Guns II'' follows up the only western (and a paltry one, at that) to make money in the past several years. ``Exorcist III'' is directed by William Peter Blatty, who touched off the whole ``Exorcist'' craze with his original novel; the sequel comes many years after ``Exorcist II: The Heretic,'' which was as underrated as the first installment was overrated. ``The Two Jakes,'' directed by Jack Nicholson, picks up where Roman Polanski's somber ``Chinatown'' left off - but it's been plagued with production problems, and nobody knows if it will equal its legendary predecessor. Finally, don't forget ``The Godfather Part III,'' due this Christmas from Francis Ford Coppola, who swore for years that he'd never turn his diptych into a trilogy. Was his flip-flop caused by inspiration or by desperation for a project that might propel him back into the big time? Stay tuned.