Jaws 2 (1978) **
I have a theory about why people seemed to find the sequel spike of the 1980’s so much more galling than the comparable one from 40 years earlier: in the 80’s, most sequels had numbers somewhere in their titles. Seriously, which sounds more like a desperate and abominable rehash of ideas long gone stale— Jungle Captive or Captive Wild Woman, Part 3? The Invisible Man’s Revenge or The Invisible Man 5? House of Dracula or Frankenstein VII: House of Dracula? The average level of creative bankruptcy among movie sequels was surely no higher in the 80’s than it was in any other era, but all those 2’s, 3’s, and 4’s came across as a direct admission that the people responsible for them were just plowing over the same ground over and over again— even when that wasn’t necessarily the case. I bring this up now because Jaws 2, while not the first example of the number-title phenomenon, seems to have been the movie that cemented its status as the default formula for sequel titles for the next twenty-odd years. At the very least, it was the first numerically entitled sequel that I became aware of, and even when my age was in the single digits, the name Jaws 2 struck me as indicating a distinct lack of imagination. Sadly, that makes it about the most appropriate title for this movie that could possibly have been bestowed.
A pair of divers are poking around on a patch of relatively shallow seafloor when they come upon the ruined hull of a sunken fishing boat. A strangely un-corroded plaque bolted to the bow identifies the wreck as the Orca, which tells those of us who remember the original Jaws that we must be somewhere to the east of Amity Island, off the upper Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States. One of the divers has a camera, enabling them to inadvertently immortalize the moment when they are set upon and eaten by a gargantuan shark.
Meanwhile, on the island proper, Mayor Larry Vaughn (a returning Murray Hamilton) is presiding over a ceremony announcing the commencement of work on the Amity Shores condominium complex, the latest venture by the development company owned by Selectman Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo, of Shaft’s Big Score!). Among the local dignitaries in attendance are Police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider, also coming back for more) and his family. This isn’t just because Martin is the island’s top cop, either— his wife, Ellen (Lorraine Gary, yet a third returning cast-member), works as Peterson’s personal assistant. There’s a great deal of glad-handing; much showing off of Vaughn’s son, Larry Jr. (David Elliott, from The Possession of Joel Delaney and Deadlock: A Passion for Murder); a performance by the local high school band; and a ribbon-cutting courtesy of the swimsuit-clad Miss Amity, Tina Wilcox (The Possessed’s Ann Dusenberry). It’s almost as boring for us as it is for the participants, but we need this scene for two reasons. First, Jaws 2 is planning on taking up the “corrupt real-estate developer” plot-thread wisely dropped from the original in its transition from print to celluloid, and secondly, all these teenagers milling about will unaccountably become the focus for much of the film.
Principal among those teenagers is Mike Brody (Mark Gruner, from A Little Game and The Tribe), eldest son of the Brodies about whom we halfway give a shit. His best friend is named Andy (Night Terror’s Gary Springer), and there are a couple of girls they always hang out with by the names of Brooke (Caveman’s Gigi Voran) and Lucy (Cynthia Grover). Also, there are a couple of nerdy guys, neither one of whose names I would ever have figured out had I not recognized one of them as a very young Keith Gordon (also in Christine and Dressed to Kill), enabling me to determine from the closing credits that he’s supposed to be called Doug. Brooke’s cousin from out of town— Jackie (Donna Wilkes, of Schizoid and Grotesque)— is going to be spending the summer on Amity, and all the boys save Larry Vaughn Jr. go absolutely gaga over her the moment she makes her first appearance. I’m really not sure why, either. I mean, Jackie is kind of cute, sure, but if the local gene pool is capable of producing Tina Wilcox, it’s hard to see what all the excitement over the new girl is about. Anyway, Amity being an island, the in thing to do if you’re a teenager there is to go cruising in packs aboard the nautical equivalent of the cheap and often junky cars employed by landlubbing teens elsewhere. You can see where this is going, right? Sure enough, the new monster-shark’s next victims are a girl and her mother out on a water-skiing excursion. The shark first gobbles up the skiing girl, then attacks the boat when Mom notices her daughter’s disappearance and circles back to fish her out of the water. Desperation proves the mother of stupidity here, for the embattled woman attempts to drive off the shark first by bludgeoning it about the snout with a gallon can of gasoline, and then by shooting it with a flare gun when that fails. The flare hits the boat’s gunwale instead, igniting all the gas that spilled out of the can a moment before, and while the shark gets some nasty burns all over its face, the woman is killed when her boat explodes around her.
That makes two pairs of curious, water-borne deaths for Brody and his deputy, Jeff Hendricks (Jeffrey Kramer, from Halloween II and Heartbeeps) to investigate, and the chief begins entertaining uneasy reminiscences about what happened three summers ago. What really gets him thinking “shark,” though, is the killer whale that washes up dead on the beach a day or two later, its body marked by two gigantic bite-wounds. Brody initially tries to get Matt Hooper back out to Amity, but since Richard Dreyfuss was still busy with Close Encounters of the Third Kind at the time, he has to settle for Dr. Lureen Elkins (Collin Wilcox Paxton) instead. Elkins refuses to offer a definitive opinion on what might have killed the orca, which is even stranger than the island-wide hormonal eruption over Jackie. Seriously, what the hell else besides a great white shark could possibly take bites that size out of a fucking killer whale?!?! The one position to which Elkins will commit herself is an outright dismissal of Brody’s speculation that maybe if a shark were killed in a certain area, that might draw others of its kind to the scene of the crime, as it were. “Sharks don’t take things personally,” she says. That sensible statement would come back to haunt the Jaws series nine years later, but that’s another story…
Nevertheless, Brody knows in his heart that the recent deaths, both human and cetacean, can only be the work of a second rogue great white, and he tries his best to sell Larry Vaughn and the selectmen on the idea of closing the beaches long enough to hunt down the killer fish before it ruins the tourist season the way its predecessor did. This time, though, there’s something at stake above and beyond the tourist trade, for Len Peterson has begun bringing in potential buyers for his Amity Shores condos. That’s a lot of property tax revenue on the line, and nobody’s going to want to buy a vacation condo on Man-Eater Island. Thus the local bigwigs prove even more pig-headed than they had the last time, and Brody manages to get himself fired when he causes a panic on the beach by emptying his revolver (loaded with home-modified cyanide-tipped hollowpoints, no less!) into an underwater shadow that turns out to be nothing but a school of bluefish. Not even the close-up photograph of the shark’s face that the police recover from the missing divers’ camera sways Vaughn and his compatriots, and the chief finds himself without the authority to do anything about it when Mike, his little brother Sean (Marc Gilpin), and practically all the other teenagers of Amity wind up under siege from the monster fish on one of their frequent sailing get-togethers. Not that Brody’s going to let a lack of authority stop him, mind you…
The most condemnatory thing I can think of to say about Jaws 2 is that it’s pretty much exactly the movie you would have expected the first one to be on the basis of Peter Benchley’s novel. It certainly isn’t terrible, but neither does it possess more than trace amounts of those qualities that made its predecessor so compelling and memorable. It also succumbs to one of the most common sequel pitfalls, revisiting altogether too many of the wrong elements of its predecessor, while injecting new material that never quite meshes with the old. Let us take, to begin with, the recycling of the “no one believes Brody until after it’s too late” plot-thread. For this part of the story to work at all, it is necessary that absolutely everyone on the island except for Chief Brody forget completely about the previous round of shark-related unpleasantness. The events of Jaws must have been an economic catastrophe for Amity, and you’d think Mayor Vaughn in particular would give his right nut to make sure that nothing remotely comparable ever happened again. Okay, Len Peterson and his condos are there to serve as an incentive to deny inconvenient realities, but surely the extirpation of 1975’s summer tourist trade was a much more serious matter than a few well-heeled out-of-towners getting cold feet about buying into Amity Shores. What does it take to teach that fool Vaughn a lesson? It would have been much better to have the authorities react at once only to have their best efforts fail for some reason. Hell, maybe the writers could have taken a hint from Bwana Devil, and brought two man-eating sharks to the island this summer— an exceedingly unlikely turn of events, I grant you, but hardly more so than having an inveterate politician like Larry Vaughn blithely sign his own election-day death-warrant by ignoring two rashes of shark attacks in the space of a single term! The climactic battle between Brody and the shark is also far too close to the original for the movie’s good. Boat disabled and smashed to flinders? Check. Last-ditch improvised weapon set up by a bit of offhand dialogue earlier on? Check. Shark killed spectacularly at literally the very last second in the midst of a headlong charge toward Brody, who’ll be helpless to save himself if his hail-Mary endgame strategy doesn’t go exactly right? Check. We’ve seen all that before, and it was good enough the first time that there’s nothing to be gained from showing it to us again.
As for the new stuff that doesn’t really work, the biggest problem is the goddamn shark. Jaws was to some extent a happy accident, in that Spielberg was driven to his standard-setting use of cinematographic suggestion and musical innuendo when the effects crew gave him an animatronic shark that looked terrible and didn’t work worth a shit. The Jaws 2 shark, on the other hand, looks sort of okay and occasionally almost functions. Director Jeannot Szwarc, evidently satisfied with the improvement, has no qualms about giving Bruce Mk II enough screen-time to make sure that everyone can see just how far from satisfactory it really is. The overall body proportions are a little better, but it’s still rubbery and cheap-looking, its head is still stuck permanently in bite mode even though its jaws are fixed with equal permanence inside the lip-line, and it still can’t move with anything even faintly suggesting the fluidity of a living creature. And as if that weren’t enough, one of the key shots in the attack on Tina and her boyfriend is framed in such a way that the camera is pointed straight down the puppet’s throat, giving us all a nice, clear look at the machinery inside it. It becomes very difficult to take the shark seriously after that.
And then, of course, there are the teenagers. There must really have been something in the air in 1978, because there’s no way we can plausibly blame these irritating adolescent nonentities on Halloween, and yet Mike Brody and his friends would ordinarily seem much more likely to fall prey to a masked murderer than to a giant shark. Unfortunately, the very fact that there wasn’t a Halloween to rip off yet means that we don’t get the merciless winnowing of the teen characters that most viewers will be expecting— and, frankly, praying for by about the halfway mark. While in theory Mike and the gang serve to give Chief Brody someone to rescue in the final act, their main function in practice is to prevent Jaws 2 from ever working up any real story momentum. Just when you think things are about to start moving for real, along comes another extended scene of the kids boating or hanging out on the docks or mooning over Jackie at the local night-spot bar. Some of the intended purpose might have been achieved had screenwriters Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler focused their attention on just a few of the teenagers, but what we have here is practically the whole of Amity High School’s class of 1978, and in many cases it’s difficult even to be certain of the characters’ names. So when the big trip out past the lighthouse runs afoul of the shark, there isn’t a lot of basis for audience investment.
On the other hand, I must admit that the kids get two of this movie’s three really good moments. One comes when Tina and her boyfriend meet the shark on what was supposed to have been a romantic outing at sea; the other comes during the climactic attack on the impromptu junior regatta, when Sean Brody (Marc Gilpin) witnesses the grisly demise of his sole true friend among his older brother’s associates. These two scenes are the only ones in which the ridiculous rubber shark ever seems really frightening, and in both cases, it’s the reaction of the nearest survivor that makes it work. Few things drive home the horror of a death-scene like a little judicious dwelling on the aftermath. The film’s third high point is much less showy, really nothing but a throwaway character bit. But in quietly reestablishing Martin Brody’s dread of the water— which now looks a good deal less irrationally motivated than it did the first time around— it offers an all-too-brief glimpse of what the original Jaws had that this first sequel mostly lacks. It also makes you realize how totally lost Jaws 2 would have been without Roy Scheider. Of course, one might credibly argue that this movie would have been better off without such a moment of understated near-brilliance calling attention to its clunkiness overall.