W.C. Fields didn't actually say ''Never give a sequel an even break,'' but years of lame follow-up movies have made betting against their quality a sound wager. Occasionally, though, a long shot does pan out, and the second installment of Michael J. Fox's time-travel adventure is very nearly as good as the first.
Picking up exactly where the original left off, Back to the Future Part II begins as Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) and Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd) set the time-traveling DeLorean's controls for the year 2015, where the villainous grandson of bully Biff (Thomas F. Wilson) is about to draw Marty's future son into a life of crime. Fortunately, the Doc has a plan to protect the McFly family's good name in perpetuity.
As every good science-fiction fan knows, even well-intentioned tampering with the future is a tricky proposition. The film's heroes prevent one catastrophe only to discover that the safety of the entire world depends on their forestalling another, this time in 1955 coincidentally the chronological site for much the original Back to the Future. Weaving breathless new action into events from that movie makes for a complicated yarn in Part II, but the gambit works: What better way to underscore the paradoxes of returning in time than to have the sequel return to the original?
Those who relished Future I's warm family humor may be unpleasantly surprised by the sequel's frenetic pace and emotional distance. Where the first film was like a TV sitcom, using time travel as its whimsical premise, this resembles a mildly violent comic book. It's all action and macho adventure, with more sci-fi than romance.
As dissimilar in tone as the two films are, Fox's winning personality bridges the gap with ease. For their part, director Zemeckis and coscreenwriter Bob Gale have remained true to the original's ground rules. Their four-dimensional quandary is imaginatively disorienting but internally logical, and again peppered with subtle bits of wit. Their version of the future promises power shoelaces, dust-repellent paper, '80s nostalgia, and no lawyers. All in all, Future II is another fantastic voyage in a thoroughly entertaining contraption.