It seems like a given: By the time any successful film franchise hits its third iteration, most of the creative energy has been sapped out, leaving only a hollow exercise in cashing in. Return of the Jedi isn't one-third the movie that Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back are; Spider-Man 3 replaces heroism and heart with an overabundance of villains and a bewildering dance sequence. And don't forget the most famous Part Three disaster of all, Godfather 3. Even Honey, We Shrunk Ourselves is a pale imitation of its predecessors in the Honey, I Shrunk trilogy.
But then comes a Part Three like this weekend's The Bourne Ultimatum, which is shaping up to be the best in an already great series. In honor of Jason Bourne, Vulture presents its list of the ten best Part Threes in movie history — plus three reasons why each movie earns its spot in our hearts.
10. Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003)
Follows El Mariachi (1992) and Desperado (1995)
• Despite the B-movie austerity of its predecessors, director Robert Rodriguez goes epic for his final installment and proves he can mount stylized mayhem on a big canvas.
• The first two films were genre flicks par excellence, but they lacked emotional oomph. By making this one a multicharacter historical drama, Rodriguez brings some much-needed passion to his filmography; it might be the most powerful film he’s ever made.
• The sight of Johnny Depp asking Danny Trejo (of all people), “Are you a Mexi-CAN or a Mexi-CAN'T?”
9. A Close Shave (1995)
Follows A Grand Day Out (1989) and The Wrong Trousers (1993)
• The third of Nick Park's series of animated Wallace and Gromit shorts introduced the character of Shaun, a young sheep in peril who quickly became a marketing bonanza for Aardman Animation and the BBC.
• Finally, Wallace shows signs of a libido, crushing on Wendolene Ramsbottom, the sweet but misguided owner of a local wool shop.
• The movie's final chase sequence includes sheep pyramids, a biplane with a porridge gun, and a fiendish robotic dog. That beats anything George Lucas has ever come up with.
8. Day of the Dead (1985)
Follows Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978)
• All at once the most harrowing, most pessimistic, and most grotesque of George Romero's zombie tetralogy, DotD flips the script, positing that the greatest threat to humanity isn't the undead but humanity itself.
• Even more than in the first two films, the intestines and brains — thanks to the work of special-effects artist Tom Savini — just can't seem to stay inside their human containers.
• Tractable zombie Bub, who proves that even flesh-eating automatons can have feelings.
7. Final Destination 3 (2006)
Follows Final Destination (2000) and Final Destination 2 (2003)
• The idea for this franchise – that Death finds innovative and elaborate ways to kill those who dare escape Him – practically demands that each new film be more ludicrous than the last, and No. 3's Rube Goldberg–on–crack machinations, kicking off with a breathtaking rollercoaster disaster, do not disappoint.
• Features a cast of characters so magnificently stupid that we can finally sit back and enjoy watching them die.
• Four words: Freak tanning-bed accident.
6. The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)
Follows The Bourne Identity (2002) and The Bourne Supremacy (2004)
• Like all great action movies, it knows when to shut up; the film’s dialogue would probably fit on one page of single-spaced type.
• Matt Damon is finally losing those boyish, innocent features – which conveniently mirrors the trajectory of his character from innocent amnesiac to hard-bitten espionage pro.
• Actually feels like an honest-to-God final installment – despite the fact that there are more Bourne novels out there.
5. Lady Vengeance (2005)
Follows Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) and Oldboy (2003)
• Even without the gruesome pulp violence of his first two vengeance films, South Korean filmmaker Park Chan-wook's relatively quiet capper is the trilogy's most disturbing, infused with an intimate, wrenching sense of real consequences.
• The best trilogies demonstrate growth. The camerawork in Oldboy was show-off fantastic; here it's not just impressive, it's sublime.
• The first two films took place in near-mythic underworlds. This final film brings Chan-wook's vengeance cycle out into the daylight, and the limelight of television, where victims' families mourn for the cameras.
4. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Follows Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
• Alfonso Cuarón's third film in the Harry Potter series is still the best of the lot, thanks in part to the fact that it's based on most enjoyably plotted of J.K. Rowling's books.
• Of all the directors who have tackled Harry, only Cuarón has nailed the combination of playful discovery and dangerous darkness that makes Rowling's series exceptional.
• A time-traveling Hermione seeing herself and asking, "Is that really what my hair looks like from the back?"
3. The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)
Follows The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Two Towers (2002)
• We don't necessarily consider the Oscar the be-all end-all of film evaluation, but surely it means something that the third in Peter Jackson's rousing trilogy is the only Part Three ever to win Best Picture.
• Though it features about seven different endings, all of them are really good.
• The exceptional shot of Gollum sinking into a river of molten lava, clutching the ring, his face turning from triumph to panic as all hope burns away. Also: Oliphaunts!
2. Three Colors: Red (1994)
Follows Blue (1993) and White (1994)
• The finale of Krzysztof Kieslowski's brilliant Three Colors series isn't just the best film in the trilogy; it's the capstone to the Polish director's career.
• In a trilogy full of gorgeous and mysterious women, Irene Jacob as a model who discovers that a local judge is listening to his neighbor's phone conversations is the most heartfelt — and stunningly beautiful — of them all.
• The film ends with a touching but subtle connection between the characters of all three films, bringing Kieslowski's masterpiece — and life — to an elegiac close.
1. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966)
Follows A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and For a Few Dollars More (1965)
• Not just the best entry in ''The Man With No Name Trilogy." Not just the best Part Three. Not just the greatest spaghetti Western of all time. Sergio Leone's magnum opus is arguably one of the twenty films we'd show space aliens to prove that we weren't just a bunch of Sandler-loving troglodytes.
• Without the film's climactic graveyard Mexican standoff, Quentin Tarantino and John Woo might never have existed.
• Those eight indelible notes of Ennio Morricone's whistle-happy main theme remain one of history's most memorable movie moments.