Rags and Riches

The Sting II
Written by David S. Ward
Directed by Jeremy Paul Kagan
Released by Universal

Prepare yourselves–Robert Redford and Paul Newman are nowhere to be found in The Sting II. But there are compensations. In spite of a sluggish beginning, this fairy tale of New York in the ’40s has several things over its illustrious predecessor, not the least of which is a fully integrated cast. I was never convinced that Robert Earl Jones, Redford’s black colleague, had to die in the original Sting to expedite the charismatic partnership of Redford and Newman. Surely the ideal of “grifter solidarity” would have been better illustrated had Redford, Newman and Jones teamed up to avenge some fourth party? But now, 10 years later, The Sting II swarms with a wealth of blacks and Latins (notably John Hancock and Jose Perez) all alive and kicking as a colorful assortment of heroes and villains — just like real life.

Jackie Gleason and Mac Davis “recreate” Fargo Gondorff and Jake Hooker, respectively, and as before, Hooker is made the bumbling foil of the older, wiser con man. But where Gleason is believably sly and self-assured, Davis lacks Redford’s ingenuous good looks to offset the abrasive silliness which comes of playing the fool. Terri Garr, as Gondorff’s con-wise daughter, is sidelined just as she’s gotten the hang of her role, and the Hawksian boys-club melĂ©e that climaxes the game soon reduces her promising independence to a minor romantic interest in Hooker — a most unlikely manipulation.

The more fortunate pairing is that of director Jeremy Paul Kagan and writer David S. Ward. Both share a special affection for historical subjects and offbeat readings of human nature, which save this movie more than once from Pink Panther excess. Kagan wrote and directed the superb television feature Scott Joplin and achieved a compelling portrait of the tragically circumscribed world of black ragtime. Ward’s first film, Steelyard Blues, was a funny, gently heroic treatment of ’60s alienation. It was immediately followed by The Sting, which (minor plotting inconsistencies aside) was a brilliant way to seduce a contemporary American audience into contemplating forgotten aspects of its national character.

With our recent loss of ragtime composer Eubie Blake shortly after his 100th birthday, such contemplations come full circle. Although “The Entertainer” is the signature rag of the Sting pictures, the bittersweet third theme of Joplin’s “Solace” recurs each time Gondorff’s people face a major crisis. A compassionate, melodic re-reading of Ecclesiastes, “Solace” reminds us that the ingenuity of these movies is not how they entertain, but how they construct redemptive parables of ordinary people who somehow beat the odds.

Published in: Village Voice, March, 1983