Shark Attack (1999) Shark Attack (1999) -**Ĺ

     Some of the major forms of cinematic wretchedness are un- or under-represented on this site as a matter of policy. Others are little-seen here because I basically donít know where to start with them. There are even two huge gaps in my coverage that stem from my knowing exactly where I want to start, but being unable thus far to track down the movie in question. In a few cases, though, there really is no good reason for my dereliction. Some things Iíve just straight-up neglected. Lousy animal-attack flicks that debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel, for exampleó I havenít done one of those sinceÖ well, since it was still called the Sci-Fi Channel. If Iím going to get back into that game, then Shark Attack clearly is the one to start with. SyFy (to call the channel by its aptly ludicrous present-day name) wasnít always the worldís foremost presenter of shitty Jaws knockoffs, and Nu Image Entertainment wasnít always one of the foremost producers of same. Shark Attack was the film that forged that unholy alliance, the progenitor of a lineage that includes not only the three direct Shark Attack sequels, but also Spiders, Crocodile, Octopus, Rats, and far too many more. Upon such inauspicious foundations are empires that have no justification for existing builtÖ

     Marc Desantis (Cordell McQueen, of Orionís Key) is a biologist at the Amanzi Center for Marine Research somewhere along the eastern coast of South Africa. When we meet him, heís out on his boat, the Durban Star, sending an e-mail to an old friend, Steven McKray (Casper Van Dien, from Starship Troopers and Skeleton Man). Desantis acts like heís passing along the blueprints to the Firefox, but evidently itís merely something about sharks. (And evidently the production assistant charged with typing up the text we keep seeing in flashes on Marcís computer screen didnít know how to spell ďstomach.Ē) Nevertheless, the 80ís espionage movie demeanor is clearly warranted, for the scientist is suddenly intruded upon by two representatives of the corrupt local gendarmerie whom Iíll call ďTontonĒ (Chris Olley, also in Orionís Key) and ďMacouteĒ (Jacob Makgoka) for the sake of having something to call them. The crooked cops force their way aboard, smash and confiscate Marcís computer, and haul Desantis away to a huge lake that doesnít actually exist at the source of a mirror-image version of the Orange River, where they feed him to a shark that couldnít possibly survive in such an environment even if the stock footage could make up its mind which of two equally inappropriate species it was. The next day, Marcís colleague at the research center, Dr. Miles Craven (Bentley Mitchum, of Sometimes They Come Back and Hell Mountain), takes delivery of a black-tipped reef shark carcass, and finds Marcís arm (identifiable by his distinctive wristwatch) inside its stomach while dissecting it in order to study its liver. Craven takes the discovery suspiciously well, if youíre asking me.

     Meawhile, McKray has a largely unreadable nub of a computer file waiting in his e-mail inbox, and he becomes doubly curious when his efforts to contact Desantis fail. From what little got through before Tonton and Macoute killed the computer, it seems that the sharks around Amanzi have turned unaccountably vicious, so that that one region has seen more attacks on humans in the past few months than all of famously shark-plagued Australia has reported in the past several years. Steven too is a student of marine life (although heís still a dissertation shy of being able to claim the status of biologist), and like Marc, he specializes in sharks. His thirst for knowledge fully engaged by the strange message, McKray flies out to South Africa to speak with his friend in person, and thus does he find out about Marcís death. Most of his information on that front comes from the deceasedís sister, Corinne (Jennifer McShane, from Replicant and Cyborg Cop III), and all signs indicate that This Was No Boating Accident. Thereís the computer missing from the Durban Star, for starters. Also, blacktips are smallish and fairly innocuous sharks, so itís virtually impossible to imagine that the fish who was carrying Marcís arm around in its belly had anything to do with killing him. Finally, thereís the watch that provided the basis for identifying the remains. It wasnít waterproof, so thereís no reason why Desantis should have been wearing it while diving. None of it adds up, and Steven and Corinne both conclude that some serious investigation is in order.

     Thatís not the only mystery in town, either. As McCray learns partly from Lawrence Rhodes (Ernie Hudson, from Ghostbusters and Leviathan), owner of the hotel where heís staying, and partly from Mani (Tony Capari, of Merlin: The Return and Armageddon: The Final Challenge), a former fisherman who has lately gone into the taxi-driving business, the local economy is in ruins because of a massive fish die-off. The longshoremen blame the scientists at Cravenís lab, believing that some chemical concocted up there got out into the water, and poisoned everything but the sharks. They also blame the lab for the present wave of shark attacks, and not just in the indirect sense that the supposed poisoning of the other fish would obviously leave them with little to eat except for human swimmers. Fishermen know the habits of fish, after all, and these fishermen swear that the sharks are behaving in ways that are simply not normal.

     Steven tends to agree with that last part at least, even if he sees no reason to believe as yet that Craven is playing Dr. Sharkenstein at the Amanzi Center. And why not? You will recall that it was a fragmentary document about atypically aggressive sharks that brought him to South Africa in the first place. With the help of Mani and Corinne, Steven begins looking into the enigma, and quickly discovers evidence that something untoward really is going on in and around Amanzi. Somebody has been planting electronic shark lures all over the place, and although Craven claims it was Desantis, that doesnít make any sense. A blacktip that McKray catches and dissects has a huge, deformed liver and a melted brain apparently stuck permanently in attack mode; its blood is full of some weird synthetic hormone, too. The water along the shoreline is full of strange, tarry globules. The Khoisan tribesmen who live by the lake where Marc was killed (the actors portraying whom look nothing like Khoisan, by the way) have an arrangement with Craven to furnish him with so many dead sharks that they can practically make a living off of him. And Craven recently began consulting at the oncology ward of the nearest hospital, which is rather outside the usual duties of a chondrichthyologist. Soon enough, Tonton and Macoute are chasing after Steven and his new friends, and McKray realizes that Desantis must have uncovered the same secret that he is now pursuing. One has to ask, though, whether Cravenís back pocket is deep enough for even a Third-World police force to fit into it, or if there might be somebody else even shadier behind him. Lawrence Rhodes, for instance. Heís easily the richest man in town, and although he seems a nice enough chap for the most part, we keep seeing hints that heís using strongarm tactics to corner the local market on waterfront real estate. But what could a minor land magnate want with a pet mad scientist?

     Yes, youíre quite right. It is a hybrid of The Deep Blue Sea and the awful mob real estate subplot from Peter Benchleyís version of Jaws. That makes sense in a way, when you really think about it. The Deep Blue Sea was the most recent big-screen shark movie when Shark Attack was made, and would therefore have been a credible target for cashing in. And as I said at the beginning of the review, animal-attack movies were not originally a big part of Nu Imageís business modeló before they started doing Jaws on $5.00 a day for the Sci-Fi Channel, they specialized in direct-to-video action movies, frequently with a thin science-fictional overlay. What we have here, then, is an incremental shift to the edge of the studioís old comfort zone, most likely inspired by 1999 turning out to be an unusually big year for the killer critter genre. That means the emphasis is solidly on snooping through filing cabinets and shooting it out with corrupt police, instead of on people being eaten by sharks, which is obviously a bit of a problem in a movie called Shark Attack. We also have a film that, while impressively dumb, is still putting enough effort into remaining within the bounds of both plausibility and acceptable quality standards (as those terms may be defined in the context of cheap, made-for-cable action movies) to put a cap on its entertainment value for the cinemasochist. Yes, it asks us to believe that great white sharks can be found in a fresh-water lake in the center of South Africa. Yes, it has Ernie Hudson doing his best James Earl Jones impression, and unfortunately coming closest to the Jones of Exorcist II. Yes, it has Casper Van Dien leaping into the water in the middle of a tense conversation with some pissed-off fishermen to save a bikini girl from being eaten by punching a shark in the face. But moments like that are mere isolated highlights, placing Shark Attack in the company of those rare films whose pedestrian badness would blossom into something truly glorious only after a sequel or two.

 

 

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