Jaws: The Revenge (1987) -***
Let me set the scene for you. The year is 1978; the film, Jaws 2. The hero, Police Chief Martin Brody, is examining the carcass of a killer whale that was washed ashore a few hours ago, in company with a marine biologist called in to offer an opinion of what might have inflicted the colossal bites that killed the animal. Brody understandably suspects a great white shark— after all, one of the bite-wounds is more than a meter across— and that gets him worrying about possible links to the monster shark that tormented his little community three years before. He asks the scientist, “We know dolphins communicate, right? Well, say if a shark were destroyed— could another shark…?” The biologist’s reply: “Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.” Again, that was 1978. Now flash forward to 1987. Universal Studios, in the hope of squeezing one last dime out of their once phenomenally successful Jaws franchise, release part four in the series, Jaws: The Revenge. It’s a high-profile picture, with the sort of obtrusive advertising campaign that always accompanies the biggest of would-be blockbusters, and all of the promotional materials, be they print or broadcast, feature prominently a tagline that somebody was probably paid quite handsomely for devising: “This time, it’s personal.” Were I in a lazy mood, I could stop right here, and you’d already have enough information to reach a perfectly just conclusion regarding the merits of Jaws: The Revenge.
The fourth film has us back on Amity Island, to which Sean Brody (now played by Mitchell Anderson, of Deadly Dreams) has returned despite the intense fear of the sea that led him to attend school in Colorado, and which surely would not have been lessened any by what happened during his summer vacation on the Florida coast (as seen in Jaws 3-D). Sean has followed in his father’s footsteps, and is now the island’s police deputy; Martin Brody is no longer in the picture, having suffered a fatal heart attack some years ago. When we join Sean and his mother, Ellen (Lorraine Gary, for the third and final time), it is shortly before Christmas, and the Brodies are clashing amicably over the scale of the coming festivities— Ellen favors a modest observance, while Sean insists upon going all-out despite the fact that his brother, niece, and sister-in-law are down in the Bahamas with no plans to come north for a visit. The next evening, Sean is sent out to the docks in response to reports of a loose piling having hung up on a channel marker, where it will pose a serious hazard for the fishermen leaving the harbor in the morning. Brody takes the police launch out to investigate, and while he is working to dislodge the piling, a huge great white shark lunges out of the water and bites off his left arm. The shark circles around for another pass, pulling Brody in this time, and inflicting sufficient damage to the boat to set it sinking swiftly by the stern. Nobody among the sizable dockside crowd ever hears his screams, which are drowned out by the cacophonous after-hours rehearsal of the Amity High School chorus.
News of his brother’s death brings Mike Brody (Lance Guest, from Halloween II and Flu Bird Horror) to Amity on the double-quick, accompanied by his wife, Carla (Karen Young), and their five-year-old daughter, Thea (Judith Barsi). (Note that Mike’s current living arrangements do not readily square with what we saw at the end of the last movie. I leave it to you to decide whether this is the present screenwriter not giving a fuck, or the inevitable fallout of Mike’s previous girlfriend’s ill-advised decision to chuck her burgeoning scientific career in order to accompany him on a year-long business trip to Venezuela.) Ellen is freaking out good and proper when her older son arrives on the island, and almost immediately begins ranting at him about the need to quit his job and stop working in the water. You see, she is convinced that the attack on Sean was no coincidence. Rather, the great white shark, as a species, has embarked on a blood-feud against the Brody clan, and the fish that killed Sean can be counted upon to seek out Mike next. It doesn’t matter that the Bahamas are far outside the great white’s known range— the fucking shark is coming, and one of these days, it’s going to gobble Mike up while he’s down on the seafloor, recording the migrations of his conchs. (Once again, note that this flies directly in the face of Jaws 3-D, in which Mike was an underwater engineer. Not only is he now just a few credits shy of a doctorate in marine biology instead, but he’ll later claim to have no talent at all for building or designing things!) Mike, to what would ordinarily be his credit, does his best to talk his mother down and to convince her that if there’s one thing she has no need to worry about, it’s the prospect of him being hunted down and killed on the job by a vindictive fish. In fact, he turns the issue around to focus on Ellen’s need to get the hell off of Amity in the wake of Sean’s death. In particular, Mike suggests that she really ought to come down to the Bahamas with him and the rest of the family— spend a few weeks someplace where the weather is nice, where unhealthful solitude will be next to impossible to achieve, and where there is absolutely no chance of her so much as hearing a story about a great white shark in the vicinity.
Like I said, to take that line of reasoning would ordinarily be to Mike’s credit, but this is not an ordinary situation. No, this is a dumb-ass movie called Jaws: The Revenge, so of course there really is such a thing as the Shark Mafia, and water temperatures outside of the great white’s comfort range are no deterrent to its agents carrying out a hit. As the Brodies come in on their connecting flight aboard the short-range plane flown by a tiresomely colorful pilot with the unlikely name of Hoagie (Michael Caine, from The Island and Jekyll and Hyde), Carcharadon Corleone is himself arriving in Bahamian waters to take up a patrol in the region favored by Mike and his partner, Jake (Mario Van Peebles, of Highlander: The Final Dimension and Exterminator 2), for their conch-tagging excursions. I’m trying to envision the assemblage of pelagic stool-pigeons that would be necessary to make this work, and the more time I spend on it, the funnier it becomes. Are there land crabs stationed on the beach in back of Brody’s house, taking notes on his comings and goings? Mussels on the pier pilings reporting on when his boat leaves the harbor? Reef sharks and seagulls tracking the boat’s movements at sea, communicating perhaps with the aid of flying fish couriers? And great Aegir’s balls, just imagine the relay network extending up the coast to Amity!
Anyway, Mike has his first brush with the shark on his next day of snail-chasing. Jake actually sees it first, as it buzzes the submersible the two researchers use to commute between their floating laboratory platform and the conchs’ preferred hangout. Again the Shark Mafia’s intelligence system comes through, and the big fish refrains from attacking Jake— presumably having been tipped off to be on the lookout for a white male, approximately 35 years old, rather than for a generic Hollywood pseudo-Rasta. And apparently that tip-off extended to cover the relationship between Jake and the real target, for no sooner has the shark laid eyes on the stunned scientist in the submersible than it charges to the surface and takes a bite out of the lab platform, right in front of an even more stunned Mike Brody. Jake now claims Jaws: The Revenge’s Unclear on the Concept prize by suggesting immediately upon his arrival topside that he and his partner forget about their snails and start studying the visiting great white instead.
Meanwhile, let’s take some time out for something that even the infamously crappy Jaws 3-D was smart enough to avoid for the most part: hackneyed relationship drama bearing only the most tenuous connection to the main story! You remember Hoagie the pilot? Well, he’s on the make for Ellen something fierce, and she is thrilled (albeit also rather mystified) to have the attention. Mike, on the other hand, is markedly suspicious of Hoagie, doing the whole “Mom’s creepy new boyfriend” thing with all the sulky petulance of the teenager he was two movies ago. Theoretically, this plot thread pays off at the climax by giving Hoagie a stake in the feud between the Brodies and the Shark Mafia, but in practice, all it does is to yield an eventual excuse for a rampaging killer animal to take on a fixed-wing aircraft instead of the helicopter that has been traditional ever since Grizzly.
That climax is set up— and we never saw this coming, right?— when Carcharadon Corleone begins targeting Mike’s loved ones in true mob-hit style. Mike himself escapes unscathed from the shark’s first real attack on him, and so it sets its sights instead on Thea. Evidently the Shark Mafia has access to whatever underwater propulsion system the aliens are using in The Abyss, because their assassin traverses almost instantly the distance between the conch range and the beach, where Thea is riding a banana boat in the surf while Carla and Ellen participate in the dedication of the butt-ugly abstract sculpture that the former welded together at the behest of the local mayor (Melvin Van Peebles, from Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song and Fist of the North Star). The hit on the banana boat is witnessed not only by Ellen and Carla, but by Jake’s girlfriend, Louisa (Lynn Whitfield), as well, and although none of the children aboard are harmed (the adult pilot isn’t so lucky), the three women are unanimously incensed with Mike and Jake when they find out that the men have known for a matter of days that there was an aggressive great white in the neighborhood. Ellen is unique, however, in trying to do something about it. Recognizing that the shark is targeting her family specifically, she steals Mike’s boat and takes it out to sea, essentially daring her fishy nemesis to come get her. Mind you , I really don’t see what Ellen means to accomplish by doing this, since she embarks on her showdown cruise totally unarmed. Naturally, Mike can’t have his mom taking on Carcharadon Corleone all by her lonesome, and thus it is that he, Jake, and Hoagie find themselves taking the airborne part in what has to be the second-silliest battle to grace any animal-attack movie in history. (What’s that? You want to know about the first-silliest? Heh. Remind me to tell you about the time Leslie Nielsen wrestled a grizzly bear one of these days…)
While hardly a fitting conclusion to the Jaws saga, Jaws: The Revenge undeniably makes for a memorable one. And truth be told, it was probably the only conclusion possible from the moment it became appropriate to speak of a Jaws saga in the first place. You know the old rule of thumb about three occurrences constituting a pattern? Well, Jaws 3-D charged heedlessly into the stupidest implications of that principle as applied to this series by making its hero a Brody; we’d all have been thinking, “Wow— the sharks sure do have it in for this family” even if the third sequel hadn’t made that its explicit premise. You almost have to admire the depth of the film’s commitment to this thoroughly idiotic notion, too. Take the attack on Sean at the beginning of the film, for instance. Remember that Sean meets his end while attempting to dispose of a pier piling that came loose from its moorings and got stuck on one of the buoys marking the channel into Amity’s harbor. What I didn’t mention before is that we get to see this piling up close— twice— and it is covered all over with what we are unmistakably supposed to interpret as the marks of shark teeth. The previous film delved pretty far into untenable anthropomorphism by positing a great white shark with a drive for maternal vengeance, but Jaws: The Revenge gives us a shark that lays ambushes requiring a detailed knowledge of Sean Brody’s professional duties as Amity’s police deputy! So far as I’ve seen, only The Deep Blue Sea has the nerve to attempt anything comparable, and it at least tries to excuse itself by serving up the old “artificially enhanced intelligence” routine. I would love to ask screenwriter Michael De Guzman how he justified this sort of thing to himself while working on the script, because frankly my own sense of authorial fair play would never let me get away with it, and while De Guzman’s resumé is hardly distinguished, neither does it seem to feature anything else on this level of naked and unrepentant silliness.
And while we’re on the subject of resumés, I also had a look at what else director Joseph Sargent had done during his much longer and more varied career, and I must say I’m now almost as astonished to see his name in this movie’s credits as I was to see Richard Matheson’s in Jaws 3-D’s. Sargent resembles De Guzman in that he has worked mostly in TV, but he’s got a few noteworthy movies to his credit— the most noteworthy of the bunch probably being Colossus: The Forbin Project. I don’t even know how to process that information. Granted, The Forbin Project’s strengths lay mostly in its writing, but there was certainly nothing wrong with Sargent’s direction there. In Jaws: The Revenge, on the other hand, he seems to do virtually nothing right. Is it really possible that he had nothing worthwhile to work with on this movie beyond the amiably slumming Michael Caine?
Well, maybe so. I’ve already dealt with the script, and the rest of the raw materials here aren’t a lot better. The casting for the most part reinforces the tendency of the screenplay to make nearly all of the characters uncommonly off-putting— a generalization that sadly extends even to Lorraine Gary as the formerly very appealing Ellen Brody. Meanwhile, we have what I believe to be the lowest body-count of all the Jaws films, which, together with all the time wasted on the Ellen-Hoagie romance and the directionless family drama, effectively prevents Jaws: The Revenge from accumulating any momentum whatsoever. And this shark is far and away the worst yet, from a special effects perspective. Were it not for the more realistically constructed (albeit in no way lifelike) mouth, it would be easy to believe that this was in fact the original Bruce, hauled out of storage after twelve years and given a fresh paint job. Heaven knows it’s mangy enough— its skin often looks to be rotting away before our eyes, its fins flop embarrassingly in response to even the slightest transverse force, and the machinery driving it is as woefully inadequate (and as woefully prone to finding its way into the frame) as that of the shark in Jaws 2. It’s no exaggeration to say that the sharktopus in Devil Fish is every bit as convincing. So, yeah— tallying it up, I guess Caine really is the only item in the “credit” column of Jaws: The Revenge’s quality ledger.