With Top Gun 3 coming, here are cinema's best threequels

As Tom Cruise prepares to return to the skies, The National looks at the films that prove three is the magic number

Tom Cruise plays Cpt Pete 'Maverick' Mitchell in the Top Gun franchise. Photo: Paramount Pictures
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Tom Cruise is set to return to the Top Gun franchise for a third film, following the huge success of the second.

Puck News reports the film is in development, with Cruise set to reunite with his Top Gun: Maverick co-star Miles Teller. The first Top Gun was released in 1986, directed by the late Tony Scott.

The sequel was released in 2022 and grossed almost $1.5 billion at the box office. It earned six Academy Award nominations including Best Picture, eventually taking home the Oscar for Best Sound.

Cruise continues to be one of the industry’s leading action film pioneers, often performing ground-breaking stunts himself to elevate the craft and authenticity of filmmaking.

Top Gun 3 is now the second long-running franchise for Cruise after the Mission Impossible films, as the seventh film in that instalment, Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, was released last year.

A third film in a franchise or film series is commonly referred to as a threequel, a play on sequel and the number three.

The tricky nature of the third film in a franchise

Historically, however, the third movie in a franchise often has proven to be the most difficult, sometimes triggering a reboot, as happened after 2001's Jurassic Park III, 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand and 2007's Spider-Man 3 (to name only a few), or even killing a series for good, such as with 1990's The Godfather Part III.

Some, however, got it right, even turning in films that are among a franchise's best.

In anticipation of Top Gun 3, here are some of the best threequels in cinema history.

Before Midnight (2013)

In many ways, 2004's Before Sunset would have been the perfect way to end the story of Celine and Jesse.

When we first meet the pair in 1995’s Before Sunrise, they are two strangers wandering the streets of Vienna, falling in love the more they get to know one another.

In the 2004 sequel, also directed by Richard Linklater but this time co-written by its co-stars Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, they meet nine years later for the first time since that night. With Jesse now married, they rekindle a bond that – with the benefit of hindsight – does not come around as often as they might have assumed in their early twenties.

By the end, Jesse decides to stay in Paris with Celine and the story finds its happy ending. Life, of course, doesn’t end with a happy ending. That’s what Before Midnight dives into.

The Oscar-winning film picks up again nine years later, this time finding the two married with children in Greece. Their trip is ruined by a heated argument that dominates the film’s runtime and ties together flaws in their relationship the seeds of which were planted were planted 18 years earlier.

In a single long scene, the entire series is imbued with even greater meaning than it seemed possible.

Bold, brilliant and masterfully staged, this is the industry’s best threequel.

Stolen Kisses (1968)

There would be no Before Midnight if not for Stolen Kisses and Francois Truffaut's entire Antoine Doinel saga.

Over 20 years, the French auteur made five films about the same character, all played by actor Jean-Pierre Leaud from childhood. By the third film, the 12-year-old in 1959's The 400 Blows (set nine years earlier – sound familiar?) has grown into a man, now chiefly concerned about romance and navigating his place in adult society.

While the film is light enough to be considered a romantic comedy (while doubling as a detective thriller), it's also deeply poignant in the context of the series, as we watch the way a single human grows into himself, both by nature and circumstance. An unforgettable experience, with the third film being a joyous standout.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)

The first Indiana Jones film Raiders of the Lost Ark, released in 1981, was a huge hit for its director Steven Spielberg and star Harrison Ford.

The film was an exciting action-adventure that captured the imagination of audiences and introduced a new character that would become one of cinema’s most beloved personalities.

The second film in the series, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, did not experience the same level of adoration. Some critics derided it as a tonally confused follow-up and expected it to kill the franchise.

Fortunately, Spielberg would direct a third film that would rival the first in its quality and excitement, capturing the same spirit that made the first a classic.

Ford’s Jones would once again face off against the Nazis as his father, played by Sir Sean Connery, goes missing while searching for the Holy Grail.

The film has memorable lines and brilliant action set pieces that still excite today.

Toy Story 3 (2010)

Woody and the gang return in this emotionally-packed third film in the series, facing bigger challenges than before.

The first two Toy Story films have their own sets of adventures that take the toys away from their owner Andy. But in the third, Andy is grown up and they must come to grips with where they could end up.

Tom Hanks and Tim Allen do a fantastic job in their portrayal of Woody and Buzz, giving audiences a strong connection to the characters they grew up watching. The film’s climax is still one of the most emotional and captivating scenes in recent history and is likely to continue to provoke a torrent of tears for generations to come.

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

Officer John McClane’s exploits in the first two Die Hard films pitted him against terrorists in a high-rise building and an airport respectively.

For the third film, the stakes are raised, as he must stop a plot with the whole of New York City as his playground.

The film is action-packed right from the start, as the opening scene features shots of New Yorkers going about their day during a summer heatwave. The scene is underscored by The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer in the City, an apt song for the set-up.

In an instant, everything is turned on its head as a bomb goes off, creating one of the most memorable opening sequences in an action film.

Bruce Willis as McClane teams up with Samuel L Jackson’s Zeus, an innocent bystander who gets pulled into the action but ends up being a great companion.

The film’s antagonist is played menacingly by Jeremy Irons, who portrays Simon, the brother of Hans Gruber from the first film.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

The Harry Potter franchise’s first two films can be described as cosy and whimsical. Directed by Chris Columbus, they made for a grounded and safe viewing for all ages.

By the third film, directed by Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron, the franchise became more grounded in reality, with a grittier and scarier tone.

This is children's fantasy with the training wheels taken off.

The stakes are raised for the young wizard as a prisoner is on the loose and possibly out to get him. With help from his two companions Hermione and Ron, Harry learns more about his past as well as Sirius Black, the supposed murderer on the run from Azkaban prison.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban often tops lists of favourite films in the franchise and it duly deserves to be there. While the films get bigger in scale as they go on, they never quite capture the unique magic of the third instalment.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Of all the third instalments, this one is certainly the most archetypal, far overshadowing the two Sergio Leone-directed, Clint Eastwood-starring, Ennio Morricone-scored films that preceded it, A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More.

Here, in the famed Western, The Man With No Name, played by Eastwood, meets his greatest challenge yet, flanked by standout performances from Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach, aka the "Bad" and the "Ugly".

The film has become so culturally important that even without having seen it, there's barely a film fan alive who can't whistle its theme. Legendary stuff.

Updated: January 16, 2024, 7:36 AM