Okay, so it's not Jaws ... but until the shark film that we all want comes circling to the shore on Blu-ray, Renny Harlin's awesome aquatic popcorn trash will just have to do.
Actually, I am enormously fond of this movie. It is a good old fashioned 80's style roller-coaster ride that dares to do a few unexpected things and stops at nothing to provide a relentless series of watery cliffhangers and lots of grisly deaths. It mingles high-concept scientific clap-trap with crowd-pleasing carnage and a bewildering series of hair's breadth escapes and, penny for penny, offers more pared-to-the-bone excitement than a whole raft of similar marine monster movies that have gnashed their way across the screen. And even though I knew that the film was coming out on Blu, I must admit that I was genuinely surprised to see a copy of it sitting on display in Liverpool's HMV apparently ahead of its announced release date. Well, I just had to bite, didn't I?
“What you've done is taken God's oldest killing machine and given it will and desire. What you've done is knocked us all the way to the bottom of the goddamn food chain. It's not a great leap forward in my book.”
After making a name for himself with the explosive Die Hard 2: Die Harder and then flexing even more muscle with Stallone's awesome Cliffhanger (see BD review), Renny Harlin critically dropped the ball with the overblown indulgent love-letter to his missus, Geena Davis, in Cutthroat Island (aye, cap'n, I've reviewed that one on BD too), leaving him sort of languishing in the D-grade low-budget action doldrums of Driven, Mindhunters and 12 Rounds. A decent stab with Shane Black's gender-reversing spy-thriller The Long Kiss Goodnight notwithstanding, the Finnish purveyor of cinematic testosterone last had any notable success with this shark-faced shocker that broke the surface just before the new millennium. Cleverly, he adhered to what he knew best and, combining the primal terror that Spielberg had so effectively reinforced back in 1975, with his own trademark brand of macho heroic bravado, unleashed a lean, mean monster-mash that took advantage of the latest visual FX technology and just went all-out to thrill. Deep Blue Sea, then, plays out far less as a horror film than it does as an aquatic action fantasy. It also gracefully panders to the videogame generation with each set-piece that our protagonists are forced to endure acting like some platform escapade that has to be defeated before access is permitted to the next level. But this devoutly episodic format works exceptionally well and it is no surprise that Deep Blue Sea became something of a cause celebre upon its theatrical run. Gore and shocks a-go-go, Harlin was clearly having a ball.
“I guess that's the answer to the riddle ... what an eight thousand pound Mako thinks about. About freedom. About the deep blue sea.”
I seem to have been on a roll lately with films whose stories revolve around Man's inept manipulation of nature. Things like the Roger Corman cult classics of Piranha, Forbidden World and Humanoids From The Deep all dealt with the lunatic ideology of tampering with genes and, inadvertently, creating monsters that would turn round and bite off the hand that once fed as a direct result. And Harlin's shark epic is no exception. Whilst the staggeringly daft premise does actually have some gossamer-thin basis in scientific truth - eggheads at a futuristic underwater research facility are conducting ethically unsound but morally redemptive experiments with sharks' genetically enhanced and protein-stuffed grey matter in order to find a cure for “degenerative brain disease” - this is merely an excuse to have super-intelligent and super-large Mako Sharks turn the tables on their captors, flood the joint and go on a boffin-chomping rampage on their way to the freedom of the deep blue sea. The screenplay by Duncan Kennedy and Donna and Wayne Powers wastes little time in pigeon-holing the characters - Saffron Burrows' dedicated but rule-breaking project leader, Dr. Susan McCallister, Thomas Jane's underwater lackey and professional shark-wrangler (with a secret of his own) Carter Blake, Skellen Skarsgard's brilliant, but clumsy biochemist Jim Whitlock, LL Cool J's wisecracking but spiritual chef, Preacher, and Michael Rappaport's excitable and jabbering Pvt. Hudson-light idiot, Scoggins, and various other human fish-food - and is certainly none the worse for such cut-to-the-chase dynamics. Where it comes unstuck, however, is with the time-honoured device of having some so-called authority enter into this sunken nirvana to effectively be “our” eyes and ears as the science bit is explained to us. To this end, Samuel Jackson's exceptionally poorly developed Russell Franklin, the “Man” who represents the big company (headed-up by a dialogue-less Ronny Cox, no less) and the potential funding of the project and its future commercial prospects, is saddled with one of the worst and most ridiculously superfluous back-stories ever welded on to a film.
“You think water's fast. You should see ice. It moves like it's got a mind. Like it has a purpose. Like it knows it killed the world once and got a taste for murder.”
As Franklin, we are supposed be enthralled and spellbound by his previous brush with death during a savage avalanche that claimed many lives and forced the survivors to do some undisclosed things in order to make it out of the ice alive. We get hints about it and are then treated to a panto-like speech from the main man, himself, at a particularly crucial moment. The problem with this is that sets the guy up as some kind of expert in survival matters, yet I would have trouble accepting any advice that he gives because of two things - firstly that, in genre terms, his character is irredeemably useless as well as being figuratively and literally out of his depth, and, secondly, that the prior life and death scenario he has been through is so ineptly conveyed (as well as being utterly poles apart from the developing situation in Aquatica) that his involvement in it actually comes to sound like total BS, at best, and possibly even criminal at worst. Maybe it is just that Harlin is unable to shake off the snow from Die Hard 2 and the blizzards from Cliffhanger - or just another reference to his icy homeland, perhaps? Basically, even in a film that is wantonly comic-book in tone and broadly rendered throughout, this entire element, as well as Jackson's character, seems completely unnecessary and ill-judged. Although I will concede that, as a set up for a gargantuan rug-pull, it is, indeed, a tremendous knock-out blow. Maybe it is just because I don't believe that Jackson has ever been anywhere near as good as his over-hyped and manufactured iconic image would lead you to believe that I just don't like his character here. But, having said that, there is no denying that he provides a moment that is both authentically shocking and, for naysayers like me, beautifully cathartic.
“Like black men don't have enough ways to get killed without climbing up some stupid ass mountain in the middle of God's nowhere! You leave that to the white folks, brother!”
But if the film struggles with the weight of adding an expensive “celeb” into the mix, Harlin doesn't have any scruples about piling on the corn as well as the ham. And at least he subverts as many as the clichés as he embraces. This was, after all, the film that famously brought in one of the cinema's biggest names and then made the beautiful move of killing them off exceptionally early on. Perhaps a nod to Janet Leigh's culturally devastating swift demise in Psycho, this was, at the time, one of the best jolts and truly made you think that all bets were off and that you couldn't guarantee who would survive the final reel and who wouldn't. In such a contrived and formulaic genre as this, Harlin should be applauded for delivering so jaw-dropping a twist. In fact, there is a remorseless and unpredictable savagery about this conflict that does indeed make each drama a crisis. These sharks are bloody big, folks. Forget old Quint sombrely correcting Matt Hooper on the size of Amity's Bruce, these gene-manipulated Makos are like submarines - deep blue death with the speed of torpedoes - and when they come at you they reveal such nightmarishly grotesque and jagged teeth that each smile they give is literally bowel-loosening. What is great is the way that Harlin's man-eaters actually remember that they have a nicticating-membrane, ie their eyes “roll over white” when they attack - something that Spielberg told us about but then forgot to actually show. The CG incorporated for these behemoths was supposedly cutting-edge at the time, yet it looked patently fake and cartoonic even in 1999. Shots that are agreeably grisly - at last we see victims getting shredded and torn to pieces in some quite ferocious feeding frenzies - can be rendered quite inoffensive at the same time simply because the beasts don't look convincing. But, it has to be said that something of miracle has taken place with regards to the film's transition to hi-def. Against all the odds, the CG actually looks better on Blu-ray, but I'll discuss this element more in the technical review for the video transfer.
“Beneath this glassy surface, a world of gliding monsters! “
That's a quote from the pixie-like marine biologist Janice Higgins (Jacqueline McKenzie) as she introduces Franklin to the deceptively calm sea-pens that house the experimental sharks ... and also a prime example of the utterly contrived and lamentable dialogue that Deep Blue Sea has in abundance.
If the CG incarnations of these nasty leviathans can still be a touch iffy, then the full-size animatronic variations are absolutely spellbinding. The size of a whale, the big puppet is wholly one hundred percent credible, its movements and its texture enough to give the come-on to any passing males of the real variety. And it must take some guts to actually get in the water next to it, let alone go for a ride in its fake, but still formidable jaws.
“Forty-five foot shark ... and you hit me. Nice.”
We were talking earlier about corn - well, there's nothing cornier than the final encounter when one wounded character manages to rise to the occasion and do what has to be done ... and all to the accompaniment of Trevor Rabin's tremendously rousing main theme, in full-on action mode. Honestly, the way that this is done, it is either going to make you roll your eyes with dismay, or have you well and truly on the edge of your seat. Me? I love it. The level of cheese is sky-high and there is no denying that its aroma is indecently pungent, but this is action-fantasy at its most thrilling and shamelessly grin-inducing, just so long as you agree to go along with the ride. When Rabin's heroic theme ignites Preacher's “death or glory” deed, the roof is intended to lift off and, to be honest, it is down to you to see that it happens. And it is this compromise that sort of sums up how you are supposed to react to the film, as a whole. Deep Blue Sea is a celebration of corn. It is worth mentioning that, elsewhere, Rabin's score reworks the same epic-sounding motif with the exquisite embellishment of a choir, the haunting lament of a piano, the delicious sizzle of an electric guitar, or just ramps up the tension with terrific echo-sounding synth effects. The composer is quite some way down the league, let's be clear about that, but even though he is your quintessential “jobbing” tunesmith for the movies, he has a couple of National Treasures to his credit and Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice materialising right about now. And, just like Harlin must have felt about the project, there must surely have been the looming shadow of Jaws bearing down on Rabin. So, when we praise Harlin for creating something entirely different out of what is, essentially, just a story about people getting eaten by sharks, we must also praise Rabin for completely disregarding John Williams' classic Jaws score and furnishing the film with something entirely fresh.
“We're on the water. Whole cat-and-mouse thing don't float. You're the Man, right?”
“Yeah ... I'm the Man.”
But whilst Harlin keeps the whole thing from going under by virtue of his giddy talents for excessive action, our heart and soul are suckered-in by something else entirely. The often unsungThomas Jane makes for a great and believable hero. Admittedly, he can't seem to keep on his own two feet for long - just check out the sequence of events when things first begin to go wrong and you'll see him hit the deck, even just running down a corridor, no less than five times - but there is a terrific vulnerability to his man-of-action persona that helps to ground the performance. He doesn't merely do the impossible, such as lifting heavy objects off people, wrenching open sealed bulkheads with his bare hands, fist-fighting forty-foot sharks and holding his breath for record-breaking spells underwater, he does so without that self-conscious, pouting aggression that many another screen-hero would exhibit. You get the impression that Carter is capable of his actions because he is just as desperate to get out of there as everyone else, but he just happens to be a little fitter and stronger and a bit more experienced in the water than any of those around him. Jane would go on to portray The Punisher in the weird Jonathan Hensleigh version of the Marvel vigilante, as well taking on the wildly divergent but fabulously compelling Stander for Bronwen Hughes. There is, of course, his other practical everyman caught up a truly terrifying situation in Frank Darabont's The Mist (see BD review) and his pulp noirish traveller swept up into a Twilight Zone-style limbo of sex and murder in the offbeat fantasy-thriller Dark Country, but somehow it is his desperately improvisational shark-battler that I respect the most. There are a couple of things that he does here that I think are brilliant, especially when seen in an otherwise braindead genre flick like Deep Blue Sea. Amidst the marvellously over-the-top series of impossible scenarios that the survivors have to battle their way through, Jane permits Carter's initial never-say-die attitude to finally buckle under the strain. Look at the moment when, hanging on to a collapsed ladder straddling a dangerous chasm that has already seen one of his fellow hangers-on perish in the churning, shark-filled waters beneath, he resigns himself to failure when Scoggins can't reach the next level and he realises that they are now fully stuck ...and then admire his stunned fear when they hear a fierce pummelling on the door above them, making them think that the sharks are actually above them as well. I love his suddenly startled jolt at the sound, and the way he just shuts his eyes in resignation. A little throwaway thing like that anchors your empathy with a character, even in a bit of popcorn fluff such as this. Somehow circumventing the quite dire performances of both Samuel Jackson (who is simply dreadful) and Saffron Burrows (who may be gorgeous but cannot escape from the thickest, grainiest wooden acting this side of Orlando Bloom), Thomas Jane saves the day every time. Even if it is just an expression of fear, or of exasperation at their increasingly desperate plight or just a plain old reaction shot, the Christopher Lambert lookalike does the film proud and, despite a charismatic and amusing turn from LL Cool J, virtually carries the whole thing on his shoulders.
The film's quota of good stuff rarely seems to run dry, either. The opening sequence works well despite having a couple of the most irritating “jocks” in it. “We're having a party, man!” one vacuous moron chirps, stating the absolute obvious to his fellow revellers living it large on a very flimsy catamaran out on a very deep blue sea. At night. With sharks about. Harlin even finds an opportunity to show us a lucky teddy-bear sliding into the briny and sinking slowly into the inky depths, very reminiscent of another similar cuddly mascot taking a massive plunge in the opening prologue to Cliffhanger. The sheer weight and volume of water flowing through the gradually sinking base - pressure sucks up veritable tsunamis into our faces when bulkhead doors are opened - is breathtaking. The sight of a shark cruising down a flooded corridor - our domain breached by them instead of the other way around. Preach being forced to seek refuge in one of his very own ovens is a candidate for one of the worst ever case scenarios to find oneself in. And Preach certainly agrees. “Brothers never make it out of situations like this. Not ever!” A disastrous rescue attempt by the Coast Guard results in another truly awful predicament to get stuck in for one character who is absolutely helpless (and very nearly armless) to protect himself. The image of a vast stretch of the deep blue with a prone female treading water at one end and the mother of all fang-faces at the other is a spine-tingling delight, especially when a speeding overhead camera then tracks the snout and vicious grin of the beast as it then begins to close the gap between them. There's possibly some shades of Brody's last-ditch encounters with two separate Great Whites here, but Harlin soaks his set-piece with some self-sacrificial grandeur. Some canny shark savvy with surveillance cameras during an eerie underwater tunnel sequence drip-feeds our growing anxieties about what these monsters are capable of. “Tell me I didn't see that,” intones Jackson's Franklin as these super-sleek beauties start to exhibit Mensa high-scoring talents. And you just can't beat a scene when the hero faces-off against the big mama like he is about to perform some chop-socky on it!
“Come on, Bird ... get your feathery ass over here!”
It is testament to the unstoppable momentum of the film that we don't pause to analyse the various situations our dwindling band of protagonists find themselves in too closely. Each little vignette was clearly dreamt-up via a committee - the writers involved with the film were not simply the three named earlier - positively salivating over every little detail doled-out in the creation of each predicament. We get the bodies of those we thought long-gone popping up like Ben Gardner's head at the most inopportune of moments. We get the trick that we see our hero performing near the start brought back for an altogether more epic pay-off once we reach the stratospherically over-the-top finale. We even get the lovely indulgence of having Burrows being forced to strip off during one encounter with a brazen monster, in one of the film's relatively few fully gratuitous episodes. And I can't be the only one who is pleased when Preach's talking parrot finally gets silenced. It is a little surprising, however, that one character is able to survive a prolonged chewing from the “Big One” with nothing more than a gashed leg whilst others are bitten clean through and the resulting parts subsequently gulped down within seconds, but there is definitely a pleasing amount of gore on show.
Harlin can't resist a plethora of in-jokes. As well as utilising a lot of props and equipment from other movies - the sea-plane from Harrison Ford's Six Days, Seven Nights, the same mini-sub from the previous year's lacklustre Sphere, which also starred Samuel Jackson and, best of all, the car number plate that Richard Dreyfuss hauls from the stomach of the caught Tiger Shark in Jaws - he throws in a stack of references to Finland just to make himself feel at home during the difficult shoot in Baja and San Diego, California. It is something of a shame that he didn't have Geena Davis getting dropped into the jaws of his mutated Makos, but then considering that her gob is even bigger than theirs she would probably have made a meal of them! Sorry, folks, I couldn't resist that.
“Hey, Carter! Bring me some sushi!”
So, beyond the woeful dialogue and a couple of obviously miscast performers, the movie is a delightful addition to the roster of salt-water shockers that may not work so much on the emotional and psychological angles, such as Open Water and Adrift, but massively capitalises on suspense and white-knuckle kinetics, and definitely reminds us of Man's abject vulnerability when faced with nature at its mightiest. It is not the best of its kind, and nor is it Renny Harlin's finest couple of hours either, but Deep Blue Sea is thunderous entertainment and swims head and dorsal above many tent-pole adventure movies coming along these days. It does what it says on the tin (or fin) and is unapologetic edge-of-the-seat material that remains as exciting no matter how times you view it.
Deep Blue Sea on Deep Blu-ray. A great turn from Thomas Jane brings some humanity to the heroism, and some savagely bravura shark-kills keep the nerves totally frayed. This is terrific fun as we all await Spielberg's ultimate predator to glide on to the release schedule and reclaim his throne. But until then, Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea comes highly recommended.
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