Welcome to “Bad Movie Night,” a biweekly feature in which we sift through the remains of bad movies of all stripes: the obscure and hilarious, the bloated and beautiful, the popular and painful. This week, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of its release (and, thus, the murder of its franchise), we look at the hilariously clumsy Jaws: The Revenge.
You shouldn’t judge a movie by its production history, but knowing that history is often useful in understanding how the end product is such a mess. Take, for example, the 1987 sequel Jaws: The Revenge, the Jaws movie that even Jaws 3-D laughs at. When 3-D — the third, barely-connected installment of the series — was a critical and commercial failure in 1983, everyone pretty much assumed the series was done. That is, except MCI/Universal head Sid Sheinberg, who felt there was still a little bit of life left in that dead horse, and got it in his head in the fall of 1986 that he wanted a new Jaws movie, stat. (Real talk: by that point, the need for such a film may have had less to do with the popularity of the original than with the studio’s desire to keep the franchise relevant, as the Jaws ride was one of the most popular attractions of the Universal Studios Tour.)
Sheinberg knew that a new Jaws movie had to come out in the lucrative summer months, and rather than take their time getting it right, the studio decided to fast-track it. Sheinberg engaged Joseph Sargent to produce and direct (it would be his final film), granting him a fair amount of freedom, so long as he could deliver the (still unwritten!) final product in nine months. And make no mistake, Jaws: The Revenge bears the marks of its rushed production, from the seemingly first-draft screenplay to its sloppy execution to the slender running time (under 90 minutes without credits) to the generally cheap look and feel. The script, by TV writer Michael De Guzman, feels very much like a “good enough!” job; the exposition is clunky as all get out, the plot turns are nonsensical, and the characters are fuzzy at best. But hey, there’s a shark attack in the first five minutes, so he knew what he was there to do.
The victim is Deputy Sean Brody (Mitchell Anderson), son of Chief Martin Brody, the character played in the first two films by Roy Scheider, who had the good sense to sit this one out. (This opening attack was originally written for Scheider to play as a cameo, the story goes, and he even passed on that.) Out on a boat doing busy work, Brody is attacked by a shark, who first gnaws off his arm and then kills him; the scene could be charitably described as poorly staged. The edits are random, we barely know what we’re looking at, and Sargent keeps cutting back to young Brody screaming and clutching the place where his arm is clearly, lumpily hidden. There is, to be fair, one inspired touch: the film is set during the Christmas season, so Sean’s screams are drowned out by a choir on the docks, rehearsing “The First Noel.” But the scene is an early tip-off to the film’s failures: there’s a jolt, but no suspense. It just happens. And if you can’t create a tense scene with literally the most suspenseful film music ever written at your disposal, you’ve got trouble.
Older Brody son Michael (Lance Guest, a regular feature of subpar sequels to horror classics – he co-starred in Halloween II) shows up to help his mother mourn, and to bear witness to her crazy talk. To wit: “It came for him… It’s waited all this time and it came for him.” He looks at her like she’s nuts. Understandably! But she’s absolutely convinced that this shark is (I guess?) related to the sharks her husband killed in the first two films, and it has singled out their family for payback, the way sharks are known to do, oh wait, sorry, have never been known to do. Nonetheless, she insists he quit his job, a gig as a marine biologist in the Bahamas. “You’re all I have left,” she insists, in more than one scene. “I don’t want you working in the water.” But she accompanies him back to the islands, ostensibly to get away from her troubles, and wouldn’t ya know it, that darn shark follows them too. (Word is that the Bahamas setting was mainly imposed because the quick production would’ve required a winter shoot in New England. So that’s how much the tail was wagging the dog on this one.)
Michael does his marine work with Mario Van Peebles, sporting a Jamaican patois that wouldn’t pass muster in a 12:45 SNL sketch. (Actual line, to the best of my discernment: “Michael, stop busting my boongie.”) The great Lynn Whitfield (later of Eve’s Bayou), as his lady friend, doesn’t get much to do, and her accent is barely more convincing. Ellen is played by Lorraine Gary, the only major player from the first two films who’s back for this go-around (perhaps under duress – she was Sheinberg’s wife); she does her best, but her character veers between stoniness and hysteria in the first half to stoniness and horniness in the second. You see, when she accompanies Michael and his family back to the Bahamas, she begins spending time with a dashing puddle-jumper pilot (and, I think we’re meant to assume, drug runner?). He’s played by Michael Caine, whose presence can only be explained as the field work for a scientific experiment meant to prove he really can be great in anything. It’s a tough test. He whispers sweet nothings like “I have an irresistible urge to kiss you, Ellen Brody” and “Blushing suits you,” while Michael becomes obsessed with his Mom’s blossoming romance. To be fair, it is pretty weird, seeing’s how she just buried her son and she’s clearly still mourning her husband and she’s got this whole “s shark is stalking my family” thing going, but they don’t really get into that. The Caine romance and its fallout is just a soapy melodrama subplot, marking time until the next not-entirely-convincing shark attack.
Some of them aren’t even real; Sargent badly abuses the nightmare wake-up fake-out device (and one of them even includes the Jaws theme, which is CHEATING, it can only be used when there’s a real shark attack). Oh, and then she starts sensing when her family members are in danger of shark attacks, so she, I dunno, has a telepathic connection to this shark?
You see, Jaws: The Revenge starts well enough – the early scenes in Amity are at least serviceable, if uninspired– but it gets progressively stupider with each passing minute. So it’s reached a real fever pitch by the time we arrive at the climax. After the youngest Brody narrowly escapes what seems a targeted attack, the serious music pounds, and our Ellen… gets on a boat and sails out to the middle of the ocean to sacrifice herself to the stalker shark, as one does. (“Come and get me, you sonofabitch,” she growls, hilariously.) Caine, Guest, and Van Peebles pile into Caine’s plane and head out to the open water to save her, and they do, just in the nick of time – as in, the plane dives down and crop-dusts the lurching shark, an image that really must be seen to be believed.
Caine lands the plane on the water, but then the shark starts chomping on it, and the pilot too; Caine’s reading of his reaction line (“Aw, shit”) provides a flash of levity that is more than welcome by this point. He manages to escape, however, swimming to the boat just in time for one of the most celebrated continuity errors in all of bad movie history: he emerges on the boat with his clothing barely damp. (His duds apparently dried in the sun between set-ups, and no one thought to get them wet again. They were really in a hurry to finish this movie.)
Anyway, the crew concocts a convoluted plan to kill the shark, which first attacks poor Mario Van Peebles and (it sure seems!) kills him, before charging to the boat for the rest of the meal. On the way, the shark roars (no, really, it roars, like a tiger), and then Ellen flashes back to her husband pulling the trigger in the first movie, an event she in no way witnessed, before they blow the damn fish up (I think; it’s really poorly staged, an ending that was reshot after the movie had already been released, for European audiences and home video, a la Exorcist II). Oh and then, to top all the hilarity thus far, Van Peebles floats to the surface, bloodied but alive. “What the hell are you doing alive?” he asks, on behalf of the audience, and then the credits roll on the film – and the series, for good.
And thank God for that. If Jaws: The Revenge illustrated anything, it’s that the franchise’s expiration date had long passed; it had passed into the realm of pop culture familiarity (and outright parody), and most of the film’s action is uninspired, rote, and obligatory. Of all the film’s shocks, none is bigger than the inability of Sargent – director of perhaps the best pure action film of the 1970s, The Taking of Pelham 123 – to create tension, especially considering that sandbox he was playing in.
As you’d expect from a third sequel, Jaws: The Revenge is wheezy, lazy, and frequently silly – so slapdash in conception and butterfingered in consummation, it almost makes the viewer question the entire series. There’s one scene, midway through, in which Guest’s young daughter sits at the dinner table, mirroring his expressions of stress and thoughtfulness, a direct echo of a similar scene in Jaws 1. But it doesn’t prompt fondness, or nostalgia. It merely serves as a stark reminder of just how far this franchise has fallen.