Tuesday, June 16, 2009
What A Shark Looks Like
The thing about JAWS 2 is that the most memorable part of the entire film will always be that amazing teaser poster which contains of the most memorable tag lines ever, “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water...” Though I was too young for these movies in ’78 I still remember the impact that simple, brilliant artwork and catchphrase had. I would be that anyone who actually did see it then probably has a fondness for the actual film, never mind how it doesn’t and never could have lived up to the original. I like it pretty well, but every now and then I’ve sat down to watch the movie and found myself thinking, “Why do they spend so much time on these damn kids?” whenever they cut to the damn kids. In fairness, that this happens probably doesn’t hurt the movie as much as the fact that most of the plot seems like its there to give the movie an excuse to spin its wheels for a while, as if pretending that it’s going to be about something other than just another shark showing up in Amity. Of course, it’s really just about another shark showing up in Amity. All this said, I freely admit that I may have liked it slightly better on this viewing than I have at other times, with many of its best setpieces proving to be extremely satisfying. It’s not great, but it gets the job done.
Several years after the events of the first film, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still Chief of Police on Amity Island and as another season is getting started several mysterious events lead him to believe that there just might be another shark in the vicinity. He mentions his suspicions to Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) who brushes him off and even his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) begins to express concern how his behavior could disrupt the realty business she now works for. As the evidence mounts, Brody decides to take action which unfortunately turns out disastrously, just as their (surprisingly older, considering their ages in the last one) sons Michael (Mark Gruner) and Sean (Marc Gilpin) are getting more involved with the local sailing culture and decide to head out for a day of boating with Michael’s friends.
Spielberg was off making CLOSE ENCOUNTERS at this point and stated that he had no interest in sequels (not at that time, anyway) so JAWS 2 began production under the direction of John Hancock (LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH). After several weeks of principal photography that was deemed to be unsatisfactory Hancock was fired and was soon after replaced with Jeannot Szwarc, who had previously helmed numerous television episodes as well as the William Castle production BUG at that point. A journeyman director, he may have been just what Universal wanted after the experience with Hancock—someone with the ability to drive the story forward and get us to the shark attacks which, after all, was what everyone was going to want to see in the first place. As much as everyone obviously wanted Roy Scheider back and as much work seems to have gone into giving him stuff to play, the various plot threads introduced (like Brody’s rivalry with realtor Joseph Mascolo) seem there just so they can be dropped by a certain point. After a killer whale washes up on the shore decimated (some sort of wipe at ORCA?) Brody briefly asks an investigating marine biologist if a shark could have been attracted to Amity by a form of sonar from the one killed in the first movie. It’s quickly shot down, but there really isn’t much that could have been done with this idea (what are they going to do? Insert a flashback showing how this shark and the one from the first were close friends?). They also couldn’t have gone the route of having Brody question if his own obsession was getting the better of him—for one thing, it’s revealed to us before anyone in the movie that there really is a shark out there and Universal was never going to let this film be about a shark who may not exist after all (without knowing the specifics, I could imagine that this is something that John Hancock would have focused on, if only based on the tone of LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH). After Szwarc was brought in to start from scratch the production abandoned Martha’s Vineyard and began again in Florida (the water was warmer, for one thing, not to mention that the Vineyard wasn’t particularly welcoming this time around). Carl Gottlieb, one of the writers on the original, was brought in at this point to rework the screenplay (he shares credit with Howard Sackler) and at times the plot structure gives the impression of being scripted under the gun, moving through the various beats of the setup in as streamlined a way as possible so we can get to the second hour, where the real shark stuff is, without too much fuss. Some of the best sequences, particularly the one with the water skier but especially the attack on teenagers Tina and Eddie in their boat, are expertly done (the older I get, the more watching this stuff makes me never want to go out on the water in one of these tiny things) with effective touches in each that insure that they don’t simply feel like they’re being shot by an anonymous second unit. The attack on the rescue helicopter also works extremely well. I definitely get the feeling that all the kinks had been worked out by the crew with Bruce the shark this time around allowing for a greater amount of fluidity in shooting it and Szwarc’s insistence at showing the shark more this time takes good advantage of that (it still looks fake during some of the climax, though). With no attempts to match certain grisly images from the first film in order to get a PG rating (no severed legs falling to the ocean floor this time around) a few of the attacks seems slightly lacking but there’s so ignoring the shock of Tina’s boyfriend Eddie slamming into their boat off-camera and the decision to have the shark horribly scarred much of the time makes for a very effective image every time he shows up.
Much of the human drama never comes together very well in comparison, since the film knows that most of it’s never going to go anywhere and as a result everything just seems a little thin. Roy Scheider gets a drunken monologue when Brody is fired but instead of the character trying to come to grips with his obsession he just talks about how sad he is that he lost his job, feeling his manhood threatened I guess, and there just doesn’t seem to be very much to it. The trio of Brody, Hooper and Quint in the first film lent it much of its power and all three of the actors played together beautifully. Here, the returning Scheider doesn’t really have anyone to play off of in a similar way, with the possible exception of Jeffrey Kramer who makes a welcome return as Deputy Hendricks and has a little more to do this time out. The scene where Brody wades out in the water to investigate something suspicious is a good example of making an effective bit out of nothing but it’s still the actor playing all by himself. The character stuff with the kids doesn’t quite hold together either—Mike Brody is convinced to go out on the big excursion by a girl who is clearly interested him (it’s a plausible enough motivation on his part) but when she’s finally placed into jeopardy his character is elsewhere, not even present for the big climax. Did the actor get hired on another film? No one notices anyway, because we’re really just paying attention to the shark.
And yeah, there’s those kids (including Keith Gordon, a few years before DRESSED TO KILL), who might make this all more nostalgic for anyone who was this age when the movie came out (Release date: June 16, 1978). It’s interesting to consider how this works as an early version of the slasher movie pattern that would begin to develop with FRIDAY THE 13TH just a few years later but even though there are casualties this of course isn’t a body count film. But, more importantly, am I really supposed to be interested in these kids after we got a movie with Robert Shaw? Not to mention Richard Dreyfuss--when Brody is informed that Dreyfuss’s Matt Hooper is in the Anartctic and unreachable until the next year my heart always sinks a little. Szwarc is no Spielberg, but there definitely is more energy to it than any number of other Universal titles from the late 70s (something like ROLLERCOASTER comes to mind pretty easily) and in spite of the different location used (it does seem sunnier out there on the water than in the first film) it does do a pretty good job in seeming like an outgrowth of the first film—John Williams’ score, which builds in natural fashion from the original themes, definitely helps a lot. In the end, it gets the job done well enough which was probably the best anyone ever could have hoped for. It’s not at all unsatisfying but the way the credits are rushed onscreen at the end always makes me think that they wanted to get people out of the theater quick before anyone realized that a fast one had just been pulled. JAWS 2 isn’t the worst sequel ever—hell, it isn’t even the worst JAWS sequel ever—but the notion that it was probably one of the first big-budget follow-ups that made the studios realize how much money they could make off these things really underlines how much it really is just a sequel.
Roy Scheider apparently wasn’t too happy making this movie but, in all honestly, it’s hard for me to keep from enjoying him in this role. The fact that we always trust and like him helps a lot (“Nine-oh-eight means get me out of there!”) and just the sight of him shouting “You’d better do something about this one, because I don’t intend to go through that hell again!” always puts a huge smile on my face. He still has nice chemistry with Lorraine Gary as well and we really do care about these characters of theirs. Murray Hamilton, who just drops out of the picture before the midway point, probably had his role reduced since a crisis with his wife’s health resulted in an agreement to shoot his part out in just a few days. I can almost believe that the actor seems genuinely distracted during some of his screentime and it’s too bad that his character never gets a decent finish—one of the deleted scenes on the DVD shows him as the only holdout on the town council when they vote to fire Brody. This would have taken away some of the sour taste I always felt but the truth is that it’s not a very good scene, so its excision is understandable. The kids have their moments and each of them refreshingly all look like normal kids. A few are just blankly forgettable and there’s no reason to say anything worse about them than that.
Szwarc went onto a lengthy career that continues to this day, directing films like SOMEWHERE IN TIME and SUPERGIRL before landing back in television directing tons of shows like THE PRACTICE, ALLY McBEAL and, more recently, HEROES. Scheider forever refused all offers to play Martin Brody again although Gary, married to then-Universal head Sid Sheinberg did wind up starring in JAWS THE REVENGE in ’87. JAWS 2 did what it needed to do and there are a few scenes where it does better than that. No, it’s not anywhere near the first film and maybe I have gotten impatient with it on a few viewings but it still manages to do the job on those late summer nights when you just need to watch not a great film, but the sequel to that great film. There’s a lot of pleasure to be gotten out of watching a Part Two sometimes. If you can’t enjoy watching one of those, then what’s the fun of any of this?