By Eric Kelsey
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Waiting 14 years to deliver the sequel to wedding film "The Best Man" gave director Malcolm D. Lee an advantage few sequels in franchise-happy Hollywood enjoy: time to let his characters mature and grow before thrusting them back onto the big screen.
Now Lee is back with "The Best Man Holiday," a Christmas-themed comedy-drama in U.S. cinemas on Friday that brings back the nine stars of 1999's "The Best Man" for a reunion that tests marriages and friendships at their lowest moments.
"I never really wanted to do a sequel," said Lee, who has also directed 2002 African-American comedy "Undercover Brother" and the 2013 horror satire "Scary Movie 5."
"I set out to make a movie that would stand the test of time," the 43-year-old filmmaker added. "If I would ever consider doing a sequel, it would be like 10 years later when they (the characters) had a chance to live some life."
And living life they have.
Main character Harper Stewart, played by Taye Diggs, was about to strike it big as an author in "The Best Man," but the sequel finds him out of work, laid off from his university professorship, and unable to sell his latest novel.
Football player Lance Sullivan, played by Morris Chestnut, is now a professional star on the cusp of breaking an all-time rushing record; and Jordan Armstrong, portrayed by Nia Long, is an Emmy-winning executive at TV news network MSNBC.
The film, which is distributed by Comcast Corp's Universal Pictures, is expected to debut in second place at the North American box office this weekend with an estimated $24.5 million in sales, behind big-budget action film "Thor: The Dark World", according to boxoffice.com.
CHARACTERS, ACTORS AGE TOGETHER
The movie's action is set in motion when Lance's wife Mia (Monica Calhoun) invites the seven old friends who have grown apart by jobs, distance and personal grudges to their mansion for Christmas, all while Lance chases the record.
Terrence Howard plays forever-bachelor Quentin Spivey, while Harold Perrineau portrays the private school head Julian Murch and Melissa De Sousa plays the snobbish, spiteful Shelby, a fictional star on the "Real Housewives" TV reality series.
Lee, the cousin of director Spike Lee who also produced both films, said he began jotting down ideas for a sequel in 2006, but it was not until 2011 when he was able to get the cast together again in one room and pitched them the idea.
One advantage of having more than a decade between the first film and its upcoming sequel has been the professional and personal growth among the actors, Long said.
"We've accomplished things, we've become parents, some of us are married," said Long, who won the best actress award at the NAACP Image Awards for "The Best Man."
One lesson Long took away from her career-driven character was the need to be vulnerable and open to love.
"In your 30s you think you know everything, but you really don't know very much, so to be able to revisit her years later is fun because I can bring some of my personal experiences along with the character's trajectory," she said.
Each character finds their relationship with one another tested in the lead-up to Christmas, in particular when Mia reveals she is suffering from cancer.
Lee said he wanted the story to strike at the heart of humanity through friendship, love and faith.
"These are all very universal themes that any human being, no matter what color can relate to, but particularly for African Americans it holds a very special place," Lee said.
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Ken Wills)