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
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. Indianapolis
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.