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The Return of the Summer Sequel

`Lethal Weapon 3' and `Batman Returns' are part of the 1992 crop

THEY'RE everywhere! Movies with numbers in their titles - usually at the end - or with names that sound suspiciously familiar, like "Batman Returns" or "Honey, I Blew Up the Kid."

Yes, it's sequel time again in movieland, as studios and production companies try once again to make a pile of summertime profit the easy way - by reselling an old idea instead of dreaming up a new one.

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Already upon us are new entries in the "Lethal Weapon" and "Alien" series. Still to come are sequels, prequels, and follow-ups to pictures as different as "Pet Sematary" and "The Hunt for Red October," not to mention "Twin Peaks" and cheapies like "Children of the Corn" and "Hellraiser."

This season's sequel crop is not particularly large, and it certainly isn't distinguished. What motivated Hollywood to produce it is probably sheer habit, rather than a sophisticated knowledge of current audience tastes.

"These things go in cycles," according to Lawrence Cohn of Variety, the entertainment trade paper. "The real way to make money is to come up with something quirky out of left field, like `Boyz N the Hood' or `Wayne's World,' which have done extremely well. But it's easier to do something over again. Then after a few stinkers have taken the glow off sequels, there'll be a cooling-off period. And then it will probably start up again!"

What touched off the 1992 cycle may have been the success of "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," which scored resoundingly with audiences last year.

Adding to the momentum, the current batch received an early boost from "Lethal Weapon 3," which is outpacing its two profitable predecessors - due mostly to Joe Pesci's presence, some observers say. Brought in to beef up the earlier "Lethal Weapon 2" with doses of his characteristic humor, Mr. Pesci has since become a hot property in "My Cousin Vinny" and other films. Accordingly, the promotion for "Lethal Weapon 3" revolves largely around him. The strategy is working for Warner Bros., which distributes the picture.

THE summer's most eagerly awaited sequel is probably "Batman Returns," which has a higher budget than the original "Batman" boasted. The new picture has a major obstacle to overcome, though: the absence of Jack Nicholson, whose manic Joker was the centerpiece of the earlier film. Will audiences be equally captivated by his replacements, Danny DeVito as the Penguin and Michelle Pfeiffer as the Catwoman, described as "sinuous" and "mysterious" in the movie's advance publicity? It sounds doubtful, but only actual box-office figures will reveal the answer.

Another movie with a profitable pedigree to live up to is "Patriot Games," described by Paramount Pictures as a sequel to "The Hunt for Red October," which has earned more than $200 million. Conceived before the earlier picture was released, the follow-up film stars Harrison Ford as CIA analyst Jack Ryan, who wants to leave intelligence work and live a quiet family life - until a terrorist scheme explodes in his face, calling him back to his secret-agent career. Here's hoping Mr. Ford enjoyed playing his

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new role, since Paramount has already announced that he'll star in two more Jack Ryan movies.

Expected later this summer is "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me," a prequel to David Lynch's popular "Twin Peaks" television series. It was screened at last month's Cannes Film Festival, where it drew mixed reactions with its surrealistic story of who really killed Laura Palmer, the attractive high-schooler with a dangerous secret life.

Some welcomed the film's typically offbeat visual style, and some praised its concern with incest as an unacknowledged plague on the "family values" that traditional Hollywood movies so often claim to support. But others found the picture lumpy, bumpy, and too self-involved to shed much light on serious issues.

The likelihood of more sequelmania next summer will hinge to a great extent on how well pictures like "Batman Returns" and "Fire Walk With Me" do this summer. But nothing can shield moviegoers from "Home Alone 2: Lost in New York," already rushing to the screen with a Christmas-season release date.

How long will the current sequel-cycle endure? The only sure answer is, as long as audiences keep buying tickets - or until some courageous film-lover happily announces, "Honey, I blew up the screen!"

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