Monday, 12 July 2010

Jaws 2 (1978)

Jaws 2 is the kind of film that faced an unenviable problem: how do you make a sequel to a hugely successful blockbuster that sported a plot necessarily precluding the fabrication of a believable sequel? Jaws 2 was, thus, inevitably contrived, presenting yet another gigantic, ravenous shark marauding in the waters off Amity Island, requiring Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to again risk life, limb, and reputation in taking it down, with his kids Michael and Sean (Mark Gruner and Marc Gilpin) getting in the road of yon wee toothy fishy. The pressure to repeat a successful formula manifests in repetitions of the first film’s social conflicts, in defiance of character logic. Brody’s efforts to alert the populace to the possible presence of a second monster again fall foul of commercial concerns embodied by Mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton) and now also slick developer Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo), who also introduces a note of the marital strife that had plagued the Brodys in Peter Benchley’s original novel.

The script was considerably altered during production after in-fighting between the filmmakers and the studio, which resulted in original director John Lee Hancock departing under a career-killing cloud, and French-born Jeannot Szwarc, mostly a director for TV, took over. Although it wasn’t the first big Hollywood sequel to have a simple, declarative “2” affixed to the title (that was French Connection II), this seems the film that made the practice de rigeur for the next quarter-century. The first half gives Brody the problem of proving his paranoid suspicion that a series of accidents, claiming the lives of two divers checking out the wreck of the Orca from the first film and a waterskiing duo, and the discovery of a beached, mauled killer whale, as all a little case of history repeating. Jaws 2 then plays out, in essence, as a teen slasher movie. Released in the same year as Halloween, the panoply of teenage caricatures on the menu here certainly seems to have helped codify that subgenre’s clichés.

The action moves to sea as the shark chases down a flotilla of Amity’s shiniest, dumbest young people, including the Chief’s boys, Vaughan’s son Larry Jr (David Elliott), likeable nerds Timmy (G. Thomas Dunlop) and Doug (Keith Gordon), and a number of comely females in short shorts. Brody tries to convince Vaughan, Peterson and other council chieftains that there’s a risk. After he panics when patrolling the beach, mistaking a school of blue fish for a lurking shark, and offloads his revolver in front of hundreds of tourists, he gets the sack, but when the teens of Amity, a rough coalition of on-islanders and rich-kid summer folk, oblivious to the danger, leave on a sailing jaunt, they fall prey to the new roaming leviathan.

The odd thing is that Jaws 2 is still quite a good and entertaining film, and one of the least superfluous blockbuster sequels ever made. Although the situation is inherently improbable (the convoluted novelisation offered a partial rationale of the shark being a ravenous pregnant female, eager to clear its chosen spawning ground of intruders), the decision to keep the material grounded in the established, quirky, craven, sea-wind salt and sun atmosphere of Amity, was ultimately a very wise one: the familiar faces of Amity pop up like old friends, including Jeffrey Kramer’s Deputy Hendricks, Fritzi Jane Courtney’s Mrs. Taft and Al Wilde’s Harry Wiseman. The final screenplay’s writers, Carl Gottlieb and Howard Sackler (the respected playwright who had helped pen the first film’s famous Indianapolis monologue), kept the mixture of everyday domestic muddle and small-town politicking remarkably intact, if now distinctly formulaic. Strong little moments lend the film a lovable flavour, like when Brody, sacked after crying wolf, gets smashed and self-pitying, and then kicks aside the emptied beer cans that litter his driveway the next morning with nonchalant grace, or wife Ellen (Lorraine Garry) advising him to “just look bored” when he arrives late to a gala hotel opening. The semi-improvised banter of the younger characters is occasionally accurate (Doug: “Sometimes the most beautiful girls are the loneliest.” Timmy: “That’s a crock of shit!”) and the usual teens-in-trouble shenanigans of the last third are at least portrayed with convincing detail, in the fractious group dynamics alternating hollering arguments, mopey sarcasm, hysterical desperation, and constructive efforts to save their lives.

If the first film is in essence about an ordinary man’s capacity to face and defeat lurking dread in its most purified form, Jaws 2 expands on this appropriately, as it hints at a study of how quickly heroes becomes superfluous to communal needs; one of the most cogent shots reveals Brody, after making an ass of himself on the beach, staring at his “Citizen of the Year” award in bewildered shame. The suggestion that an unexamined post-traumatic stress afflicts him and affects his judgement on how to deal with the problem also hovers intriguingly. Roy Scheider’s performance is as excellent as in the first film, perhaps even more so, although he lacks foils as strong as Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. But the adultness of his relationship with Ellen is real-feeling and virtually unique in this kind of film. Some of the supporting performances are engaging too, including Gordon who, recruited straight out of high school, obviously landed his subsequent gigs in Dressed to Kill and Christine thanks to this, and Ann Dusenberry as Tina Wilcox, the sweet-cheeked local beauty queen whose reaction to watching her boyfriend get eaten is quite a striking bit of acting in context, a good example of the little surprises such genre films can yield. Szwarc builds, somewhat predictably but with relish, to a repeat of the original’s finale, Brody again placing himself in the road of those massive jaws. This time it’s to lure the animal into chomping on a colossal power cable, a plot device for which the ground is laid far earlier in an obvious but humorous vignette, and it does certainly provide a spectacular finale.

John Williams inevitably returned to repeat the scoring duties that first made his a household name, but rather than take to the task lazily, he made it an opportunity to indulge his creativity, offering up some splendidly suite-like moments, like the ballet that accompanies a group of divers, and the jaunty yachting and beach-going themes. Szwarc’s direction is for the most part admirably efficient, keen to performances and fluent in action, and occasionally even atmospheric. I especially like the eerie, anticipatory moment in which his camera drifts away from the gala, romantic big band tunes playing and recomposed harmony of life reigning in Amity, their sounds echoing out across the water where lonely moored yachts bob, only for one to be rocked by the shape of a massive underwater presence before the tell-tale fin cuts the water. When the shark pursues the oblivious flotilla out to sea with malevolent intent, Szwarc’s and William’s inventions entwine neatly as Szwarc films the racing boats in sweeping, thrilling helicopter shots, and William’s score builds in frenetic, melodramatic chords, before resolving in the familiar shark theme.

But Szwarc constructed suspense sequences in a more obvious fashion than Steven Spielberg’s shocking and yet logical and carefully wrought climaxes. Szwarc’s equivalents, like a diver (Barry Coe) being ambushed by the shark, Brody’s being freaked out by a charred corpse in the surf, or the cynical yet effective moment when Marge (Martha Swatek) saves Sean’s life only to then be consumed in one gut-crunching bite in front of the kid’s eyes, lapse far more obviously into horror-movie gimmickry. The pressure to enlarge upon the thrills of the predecessor offers up a scene both fun and stupid, when the shark brings down a helicopter. This time around the mechanics animating Bruce seemed a little more refined, so that the filmmakers were more confident about putting him on screen. Unfortunately that doesn’t really help the tension, for he’s quite awfully fake in some moments – I particularly like one scene where, with mouth open wide, his overbite crinkles up exactly like a toy rubber shark I used to own.

In purely technical terms it is, however, often a mildly superior film to the first Jaws, more confident and expansive in its ocean-going action, with a tried-and-tested effects crew and large budget. The richly hued and brilliantly lucid cinematography by Michael Butler (no relation, funnily enough, to the original’s photographer, Bill Butler) is a great plus. But the story as a whole, the relative sluggishness and formulaic tone of the narrative in comparison to the grand adventure of Jaws, and the lack of Spielberg's technique, just can’t be considered in a class with his film. You could argue that if you wanted to make a believable sequel to Jaws and keep the original characters around, the second two instalments - the wonderfully awful Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge – actually came up with a better essential idea, in that Michael, after his traumatic youthful encounters, started placing himself in harm’s way as a marine biologist. Still, Jaws 2 is probably as good as it was ever going to be.


J.D. said...

Excellent review! This film (along with its sequels) has popped up on cable TV quite a bit in these parts and so I've watched it a few times and it's really not that bad of a film as far as sequels go. The logic is a little daft at points. Fer instance, I didn't really buy that the mayor, et al would stonewall Brody AGAIN after everything that happened in the first film. It just doesn't quite ring true. That being said, the film plays out in a very entertaining fashion and I was struck by how young Keith Gordon looks (was) and reminded me what an accomplished filmmaker he has gone on to be.

Roderick Heath said...

Well, as it's played in the narrative, it's not too unlikely. If Szwarc had been gutsy enough to leave out the actual shark attacks, it would look very much to both characters and audience alike that Brody was suffering from PTSD, paranoid delusions, or self-promoting, and with this considered along with the unlikeliness of a second shark, it would be quite understandable if they wrote him off as unstable; in that regard, it makes it MORE likely if considered in light of the first movie's events. You could almost make a grim joke out of it - "Ah yeah, old Martin's still fightin' sharks!". Of course, it's all still quite a long bow. Anyway. I've been watching it since I was a kid and it mostly held up for me. Keith Gordon, whether acting or directing, actually seems to elevate almost anything he touches.

Sam Juliano said...

"Jaws 2 finally plays out, in essence, as a teen slasher movie. Released in the same year as Halloween, the panoply of teenage caricatures on the menu here certainly seems to have helped codify that subgenre’s clichés."

This is pretty much where I stand on this nonetheless entertaining sequel, which in a narrative sense is as contrived as they come. As you rightly note, the techical accomplishment may even surpass the original, though the directorial control and superior shocks of the original remains far superior than what the follow-up can muster.
Regarding Keith Gordon, it may well be significant to note that his work (as director) on both THE CHOCOLATE WAR and A MIDNIGHT CLEAR is fairly impressive.
You did so much with this review, in fact it's better than the film! Ha!

On a side note Rod, I put together a lengthy response to your excellent review of Racine's PHAEDRE over the weekend, only to have it lost due to altered restrictions at your English literature blog. I would gladly put it together, if there's a way to enter it at the site.

Roderick Heath said...

You did already mention your posting problem back on the Up In The Air review, Sam. I fixed the settings on E1OW; I'm not sure how they were reset, probably something to do with that system-wide glitch a lot of people were having with commenting on Blogger last week. Anyway, they were restricting non-Google registered users, but not anymore.

Yes, Gordon's a very good filmmaker. I particularly liked his adaptation of Kurt Vonnegut's Mother Night as well as the two you mentioned, and even the dubiously plotted Waking the Dead had a fine visualisation. I've not seen his version of The Singing Detective, however. The DVD of Jaws 2 I watched had a nice interview with him where he explained how much he learnt on the set, so there's another thing in the film's favour.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

I really enjoyed your review of Jaws 2 Roderick. This was an enjoyable look back at one of the few sequels I place as a close second to the original.

Often, my shelves stick with the original film, but in a few slim cases, [Aliens, Superman II or as you mentioned Halloween II], I'm happy to place its sequel right next to it. Jaws 2 is a great example of that. Let's face it, it's a far cry better than Jaws 3 [a 3D picture that clearly made James Cameron get busy] or Jaws 4. What were Dennis Quaid and Michael Caine thinking? Still, they are a bit of a guilty pleasure. It was like taking Superman too far.

Wonderfully written piece. This is a tight film and a terrific return to the ocean. I love your notable commentary on the teen angst throughout the picture. Great points. The return of the principals really made the picture for me. Roy Scheider is simply one of the best and brings back wonderful memories to some terrific films he offered back in the day including Blue Thunder.

Your point about missing the foils of Dreyfuss and Shaw is a notable one. I think the absence of those two actors really makes a significant in impact on the flavor of the story. Thankfully Roy is so strong and his other relationships so interesting, as you pointed out, it changes the picture enough to make it a solid sequel.

Bad sequels/prequels: Escape From LA comes to mind.

Roderick Heath said...

Glad you liked this, Fanatic (nice mention of Blue Thunder, too, by the way). I admit to having a distinct guilty liking for Jaws 3-D and The Revenge too, particularly the latter, because it remains the best movie theater-going experience I've ever had, in a cinema full of rowdy, probably inebriated teens who kept ironically cheering throughout, especially at the bit when Caine turned out to be still alive. Jaws 3-D is likewise associated with early childhood in a way I can't quite disseminate; it was one of the first big hype movies I recall being really aware of. To be sure they're both ludicrous, and tacky, but to a certain extent they keep the character-driven aspect of the series intact, so despite being stupid they're not so offensively stupid as a lot of recent, much more expensive movies.

The thing about Shaw and Dreyfuss being missing is of course deeper than just the lack of their good acting; their characters also offset the averageness of Brody and the pettiness of the townsfolk with great thematic meaning. Hooper as the voice of science, Quint as the old man of the sea, offered different energy to the drama. There's no-one in Jaws 2 to offer that kind of counterpoint.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Mre great commentary Roderick. I completely agree with you on all points. I especially agree with the facts about 3 and 4 being character driven. You're right. That saves those films. I also have happy memories of seeing Quaid in God awful 3D, but I still love it.