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?


Don Mancini said...

I feel much the same as you do about this movie, with maybe an additional layer of nostalgia, since at 15 I WAS the same age as the Amity kids when JAWS 2 came out in '78. Plus, I was a kid who spent a lot of time in the water; I kind of identified with the Amity kids. But even as a 15-year-old, they annoyed me with their wafer-thin, ultra-generic characters, and, in some cases, terrible performances. (I think you were VERY kind to the film in regards to this issue.) But you're right: Sczwarc does a very slick, smooth, professional job. His direction is somewhat Badham-esque: zippy TV-style efficiency spiced with the occasional stylish touch -- like the dead divers' flashing camera slowly sinking to the ocean floor, or the dorsal fin secretly surfacing just outside the opening party, as if the shark is just biding his time.

You're also right about that poster, whose signature image of a dorsal fin slicing through red-tinged waters at sunset, is a far richer and more provocative image than any contained in the film itself.

Joe Valdez said...

One of your best posts yet, Peter.
I like Jaws 2 quite a bit and you touched on why: the set pieces are damn good.

The magic and suspense of the original Jaws was gone and not coming back, but Gottleib and Sackler do a yeoman's job of showing us more of Amity Island and putting it to use in the action, which doesn't really let up.

After this installment, Universal would run out of ways to show a shark attack. This flick pretty much runs the gamut. My favorite is the nice girl who is swallowed whole while rescuing Sean.

Now what I want to know is, which movie is a better Jaws rip-off, this one or Piranha?

Anonymous said...

That is one helluva (teaser) one-sheet. The movie? Less so. As always, very nice write up.

- Bob

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


You're right, I was kind to those performances. There have been times when I've liked the movie considerably less because of them. All I can say is that on this viewing I just kind of went with the flow and focused on the stuff that I liked. But you are absolutely right about how generic they are. The movie never does live up to that poster but it still has a number of moments that work pretty well.


Thanks very much for that. I can never manage to remember what that girl looks like--she's one of the kids who doesn't make much impression but I do like John Williams' fee-fi-fo-fum music there and the moment does really work. And I always liked PIRANHA. Because it's such a spoof it just seems like a different thing, but I've always really enjoyed it.


It really is a beautiful poster. Glad you liked it.

Toby Roan said...

Great post.

Saw this thing opening day — I was 14.

Can't remember ever being more excited waiting for a movie to start.

Speaking of being excited waiting for a movie, JAWS is playing tomorrow night in Durham at the Carolina Theatre.


Anonymous said...

If you ever read the novelization (which I do not recommend) by Hank Searls, he actually makes the shark the mate of the shark from the original Jaws.

Your writeup was outstanding. And credit to Joe for his recall of the girl getting swallowed. We knew nothing about her aside from her being nice enough to take Sean and then sacrificing herself to save him. That was a scene I would rewind and watch over and over because it is just so awful/awesome?

Don Mancini said...

While Google (or whomever) is allowing me to post, let me reiterate how much I love your blog. Your thought-provoking essays on old(ish) films, some still-well-known, and others more obscure, is, for me, like getting in a time machine and revisiting touchstones from my youth. Thank you!

Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...

Any night where you get to see JAWS in a theater automatically has to be a good night.

I think I once heard that the novelization was based on the script that was being shot before Hancock was fired, but I can't remember where I learned that.

Anyway, thanks to you each of you guys for your terrific comments and extremely kind words. It really does mean a lot.

Jeffrey Allen Rydell said...

Mr. Peel said... "Though I was too young for these movies in ’78 I still remember the impact..."

Mr. Peel - were you by any chance born in '72? Ya gotta be close...

Toby Roan said... "Speaking of being excited waiting for a movie, JAWS is playing tomorrow night in Durham at the Carolina Theatre."

Were you there? I was. First row, center. Packed house. First time on the big screen.

Been wanting that moment since I was old enough to regret not having it in '75. Felt kinda tingly.


Mr. Peel aka Peter Avellino said...


Not quite '72, but very close. For a long time, both JAWS and JAWS 2 existed for me only as their posters, just one reason they both still seem so mythic to me.

Unknown said...

For posterity, I will transcribe the line of dialogue that always haunted me from this movie, from when I first saw it when I was about seven years old: "She's got tits like a sparrow."

Toby Roan said...

Jeffrey --

Yep, I was there. Wearing trifocals these days, I kinda hafta sit two-thirds back to aim my head and the sweet spot in my glasses just right.

When I was a kid, we had a 16mm scope print of JAWS that I watched almost daily in 1976. The power of that thing on the big screen — on film — is amazing. And the shark looks pretty good, really.

Jeffrey Allen Rydell said...


I officially want your childhood.


Karl Gibson said...

Wow, what a fun post here. I was too young to see the first 'Jaws' but like one of the commenters here, the poster and the pop culture influence of it that summer was insanely fun and 'mythic' as he said. My family had two beach houses on the Indiana Dunes and our family swims to the second sand bar became moments of hysteria for me. I caught hell for that, never mind it was Lake Michigan---still, I could imagine that shark.

I was old enough to see 'Jaws 2' and while it didn't have the terror of the first one, the shark was still scary enough to imagine the fear of being trapped out on the ocean with it. I was a little kid and could relate to Sean Brody's character. As for the teen actors, I love Keith Gordon, Tina and Eddie, and Donna Wilkes--6 years before she starred in 'Angel' ('Student by day. Hooker by night.') She genuinely seems terrified in the movie and makes the fear believable every time the shark returns to the tangle of capsized boats.

Loved this post. I know I'm a year late but I'll be back to read more.