Jaws: The Revenge
(SPOILERS) Jaws IV is, of course, one of the worst movies ever made, one of the biggest stinkers ever to have erupted from Hollywood. That’s the received wisdom, at any rate, seemingly even underlined by its stars, with Michael Caine famously citing it as paying for his house, and that, despite not having seen it, he was “reliably informed that it is, by all accounts, terrible”. But what if it isn’t? What if Jaws: The Revenge is actually – not a high bar, I know – the best of the Jaws sequels?
“But the premise is ludicrous” I hear you cry. Maybe, but I actually like the premise, so you may want to leave right now. It’s completely barking, but it’s a whole lot more honest – if you’re going to contrive to bring back the Brody clan each time – to ally this overtly with the vengeful slasher cycle Spielberg’s original preceded (and some might suggest predicted). Is it really any more ridiculous than a shark menacing Roy Scheider again in Jaws 2? Or Dennis Quaid’s Mike Brody in Jaws 3-D? This time the shark really means business, and he’s out to do for the clan, the bane of shark kind everywhere for nigh on a decade, once and for all. Good luck to the fellow.
Mike Brody: You can’t believe that voodoo. Sharks don’t commit murder. They don’t pick out a person.
The actual reasons he/she is on this vendetta are never established. Being a grieving widow or widower might do it, but Hank Searls’ novelisation intimates it may be a voodoo curse on the basis of a feud with the Brody family (not a curse on the shark’s part – to the best of my knowledge they don’t practice witchcraft – or its feud with the family, just for clarification). Whatever the motivation, this is the shark as Michael Myers or the Terminator, and the Brodys are Lori or Sarah Connor; there’ll never be any peace from its appetite for destruction.
The characters in The Revenge know this scenario is ridiculous, with Gary’s Ellen finally convincing herself at one point that she’s just imagining things (until she psychically registers Mike being attacked by the finned fiend). Director (and executive producer) Joseph Sargent said they were all “excited by the possibility that a shark could wreak vengeance for the killing of his cousins, or whatever they were”, so I guess he wasn’t entirely sure either (the screenplay is credited to Michael De Guzman, in the main a TV guy who’d worked on Amazing Stories prior to this).
Joseph Sargent: It was a disaster, and rightfully.
Sargent seems to have become convinced of the dreadful hubris of his idea over the years (“How do grown men… get involved in something that idiotic?”), outlining that “We thought, maybe if we take a mystical point of view, and go for a little bit of… magic, we might be able to find something interesting enough to sit through” They came up with the shark first killing Martin Brody (Scheider refused the invitation for an encore, unsurprisingly) and then Sean (Mitchell Anderson). In this version (in the movie, “dad died of a heart attack”), Ellen has two good reasons to suspect foul, or rather fish, play: “So the mother now is convinced that the shark is out for revenge. Now, it’s a preposterous premise. But at the time we were fired up by the possibilities…”
As it turned out, audiences weren’t even willing to turn up, but I think the key element of the Sargent interview is trying to find something interesting enough for pique cinema-goers’ enthusiasm for a fourth go-round. Unlike Jaws 3-D, which is a complete chore, and Jaws 2, which suffers when Scheider or Keith Gordon aren’t the centre of attention, The Revenge charts its running time remarkably well. One may scoff at her statement, given the revile that greeted the picture (and saw her re-retire, having returned to acting especially), but Gary was right to note that the movie is much “more like the first Jaws” in focusing on relationships.
Reactions to the picture focussed less on that side than the general unlikelihood. Few were persuaded by characters giving voice to the impossibility of what was occurring, be it a shark being able to seek out and destroy family members or navigating the warm waters of the Bahamas – or getting there in double quick time, given the Brodys fly back from Amity. Less still, it’s ability to roar; how can you not love that the shark roars?
Sargent mostly doesn’t play the film for laughs, of course, even if he opens on a sight gag worthy of Joe Dante’s last shot in The Howling, as an eyeball pulls out to show Ellen frying fish in a pan. It bears noting that this is the best-directed of the sequels by a country mile, Sargent’s penchant for the shark taking flying leaps out of the sea in the most unflattering light aside (although, he’s only going where Spielberg went first). This is a movie – again, shark aside – that looks great thanks to the Bahamas locations and is shot through with a keen eye for both the inherent drama or humour. Sargent knows how his staging and his way around a scene, something you couldn’t say with any confidence of Alves or Swarzc.
If you can swallow the berserker nature of the shark, the only resulting problem is that Sargent shows too much of the damn thing. The structure of his set pieces is pretty much faultless, and he knows how to elicit tension, but the special effects just can’t take the kind of scrutiny he allows, since he’s working as if the Quint-munching scene in Jaws is the working model for how to treat the beast. Nevertheless, the initial attack in which Sean meets his end is pretty horrific, possibly the nastiest kill in the series; the Amity deputy loses an arm as it chomps on him, his screams for help drowned out by a carollers’ First Noel (again, this kind of compositional care is something the other sequels simply wouldn’t have conceived) before the Great White drags him under.
The sequence in which Mike (Lance Guest giving a fine performance, although he has something to chew on, unlike Quaid) is menaced on the boat, the shark having ignored Jake (Mario Van Peebles) in the submersible, is also well put together, as is the subsequent underwater pursuit through a wreck, in which it eventually breaks through a bulkhead wall… I guess you’re either willing to go with this or not, and most viewers weren’t. Later, the aquatic abhorrence even eschews a “no small children” policy as it goes after little Thea Brody (Judith Barsi) on a banana boat, snacking on one of her fellow occupants as collateral damage.
The key to The Revenge working on its own terms is that it engages outside of the whacky shark attack scenes. There are actual characters here, ones that are interesting and engaging enough to spend time with, not merely cyphers to bridge the gaps between kills. That’s arguably also a weakness, as it makes the gulf between their interaction and the crazy premise all the wider, but what can you do?
Mike: I’ve always wanted to make love to an angry welder. I’ve dreamed of nothing else since I was a small boy.
Jaws 3-D has been expunged from the record by The Revenge, such that Mike didn’t become an engineer at SeaWorld – unless he’s keeping very quiet about it and his plastic surgery – and has been devoting himself to marine biology with pal Jake. Guest is more of a theatre guy these days, but back then he had a few passes at fame, most notably The Last Starfighter (a lot of fun). He and Van Peebles have an easy, playful rapport (the latter reportedly wrote his own dialogue, which may explain “May your sex life be as busy as your shirt”, commenting on a particularly striking Hawaiian number), likewise with Karen Young (Carla Brody, who’s a sculptor of sorts).
There are nice touches, like the degree of believability to Mike’s reasoning in going back into harm’s way after his first shark encounter (“I’m scared shitless. What the hell am I supposed to do if I can’t go back in the water?”) although Karen’s rage following the banana boat incident, on learning Mike had kept schtum (“Why didn’t you tell us?”) is slightly less robust (what, inform her there really is a psycho shark after the entire family?)
Ellen: What do you do when you’re not flying people?
Hoagie: I deliver laundry.
Hoagie: I deliver laundry.
Gary’s the backbone of the movie – put into production at the edict of her husband, Universal head Sid Sheinberg, now best known as the man who wouldn’t release Terry Gilliam’s Brazil – but Mike is more the focus. Ellen does get the most curious plotlines, though, include her strange affinity with the monster and a fledgling romance with Caine’s Hoagie.
In another believable thread, Mike is suspicious of Hoagie’s intentions and motivations – according to the novel, he’s a government agent transporting laundered money, a bit like Tom Cruise in American Made, I guess. It’s a well-observed little episode, curiously dropped at the end, and it’s difficult to see quite what Caine did to deserve that Razzie nomination (other than make $1.5m for ten days work, which some might say was quite enough), as he’s at his most affable and charming (“I knew a one-armed piano player. He took two minutes to play the minute waltz”).
Hoagie: Maybe he’s got indigestion – he’s already eaten my plane!
I think it was a mistake to indulge so many sepia-tinted flashbacks to the original movie, either by way of dream sequence or – most unnecessarily – during the climax as the shark is impaled on the sailboat’s bowsprit. They disrupt the flow and worse make the picture seem indebted to the original, rather than its own thing. I understand the impulse – “We’re a proper sequel” – but it’s misjudged. On the other hand, the shark attacking Hoagie’s plane goes one better than the helicopter assault in Jaws 2.
I watched the original version of Jaws: The Revenge, the one that seems to be least widely seen now, in which Jake is indeed polished off by the shark (this coming after Hoagie’s unlikely escape – “Bloody hell! The breath on that thing”), which is rather uncharitable. The producers clearly agreed, as a different ending was shot for international audiences in which he survived, and in which the shark blows up rather than leaks copious quantities of ketchup. Since the exploding shark (reportedly lifted from the original) was met with as much derision as the shark’s revenging, and the possibility that Jake would have survived being entirely masticated, I don’t think I missed out.
Jaws: The Revenge didn’t even make its budget back in the US, failing to hit the top slot in its opening weekend (it was beaten by Robocop’s debut and a reissue of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs), although it wasn’t a great month for four-quels, as Superman IV: The Quest for Peace did even worse the following weekend. And that was the end for Jaws. No remakes have been forthcoming (I’d hazard that’s Universal wanting to keep Spielberg sweet rather than for a reluctance to reboot), and it would be a decade before there’d be another sizeably-budgeted shark hit (Deep Blue Sea). This year there’ll be another one, the monstrously tongue-in-cheek The Meg, long in development hell. I suspect the tentative nature of new arrivals to the sub-genre is more to do with Jaws mastery than The Revenge’s ignominy, though. Largely undeserved ignominy at that.
Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.