Steven Spielberg’s brilliant film Jaws made us want to stay out of the water but Joseph Sargent’s ineffective & confused sequel forgets why. Daniel Stephens takes a look at one of the worst sequels of all time…
Jaws: The Revenge has the very reputation studio execs lose sleep over. It is the film whose poster they hang on their office walls to remind them what can happen when a film goes badly wrong. Seeing it would make any film financier work twice as hard to ensure the component parts – from screenwriter to director to performers – were at least competent at their jobs. It is universally panned by critics, hated by audiences, and has even franchise fans finding themselves muddled and confused by its plot holes and logic inconsistencies.
The trouble with the film lies at the feet of director Joseph Sargent whose CV is largely made up of forgettable made-for-TV movies. He tries desperately to bring the film back to its roots by focusing on the characters who first appeared in Steven Spielberg’s original but in doing so acutely highlights the key flaws in his own work as comparisons become inevitable. Principally, Sargent manages to turn Spielberg’s terrifying monster into something supernaturally silly. The shark’s sudden emotional determination to enact revenge breaks not only the authentic threat Spielberg created but also the uncomplicated nature of a shark’s actions, its simple and undiluted need to survive with no regard for the human flesh it devours.
In Jaws: The Revenge, the shark has reason where no reason should be, targeting the Brody family for killing at least two of its own. This is a fish with a chip on its shoulder. As a piece of b-movie horror cinema the concept isn’t without its merit but Sargent’s film is part of a family of movies that began with one of American cinema’s most influential and revered thrillers that gained its reputation because it presented a threat that felt palpable. In fact, people continue to refuse a dip in the sea because of Jaws. This fourth film in the franchise makes a mockery of those traits and is reason enough for most to hate its mere existence.
There are of course many problems with the film, not least the odd change in direction halfway through where Sargent takes the attention off Ellen Brody’s distraught widow (who embarks on a romantic interlude with Michael Caine’s reckless pilot) and onto her son. We’ve already had to endure a painful period of story time watching Ellen’s strange psychological kinship with the shark, an unsubstantiated ability that somehow allows her to feel its presence. Whether Sargent wants us to believe this is the shark her husband blew up in 1975 and which now wants to kill the Chief of Police’s wife, or is another shark (possibly a sibling, or maybe an Aunt or Uncle of Spielberg’s monster) hell bent on enacting vengeance, is not revealed so we have to work that out for ourselves. What is for sure though: it’s a bloody stupid idea. However, in Sargent’s defence, each of the Jaws sequels has suffered from this implausibility. That said, the shark’s actions (such as following Ellen from her home on Amity Island to the Bahamas, and its strategic targeting of her family) make it a sort of caricature. Instead of fearing the threat, we laugh at the impossibility of it all.
But it is too easy to rip Jaws “part 4” to pieces and ignore its few good qualities. Lorraine Gary, who reprises her role of Ellen Brody, does a commendable job, and for fans of the series it is nice to see the film directly link itself to Amity Island, the Brody family and the story as it was originally set-up in Spielberg’s original, even if it does displace events to the Bahamas. I liked the film’s sepia-toned flashbacks, including Chief Brody’s “smile you son of the bitch” line, which were gentle reminders of Spielberg’s incredible legacy.
Meanwhile, Ellen’s son Sean’s run-in with the shark in the film’s opening reel is one of the more effective encounters with the man-eating fish. The scene is darkly lit from the artificial light of the dock as the young Sheriff’s deputy is sent out in his police-issue motor boat to clear debris from the water. The shark attacks, leaving Sean badly maimed and crying out for help. But his cries do nothing for his survival as the shark comes back for more, sinking the boat in the process. It lacks any sense of plausibility in keeping with the rest of the film but the scene is suitably dark and bloody, offering a misleading clue to the film’s overall tone and its ability to get under your skin.
Yet, Sargent manages to cram so much deadweight into the story, any virtue it might have is quickly submerged beneath the Atlantic. If it isn’t unconvincing character motivation which includes pretty much everything Michael Caine does in the movie such as his foolhardy flying, then it is useless plot devices that seem to have been concocted while under the influence of a hallucinogenic cocktail. Take for instance Michael Brody’s wife Carla who creates an avant-garde sculpture made of steel for the local community that looks like a child’s art project gone terribly wrong. In fact, that this monstrosity is presented with a straight face as “art” is far more frightening than the shark could ever be. This uninspired tangle of metal is later unveiled at a community gathering as a celebration of local culture; if local culture is about getting inebriated, raiding the nearby scrap yard and throwing together bits of junk, that is. I know what Sargent was getting at with the sculpture – the abstract creation does resemble the preserved shark’s jaws witnessed in Quint’s shack in the 1975 film, and is therefore another nod to Spielberg’s classic, but it, like so much of the film, doesn’t work.
By the end Jaws 4 has endured so many missteps, by the time it has fallen over for the umpteenth time, it simply gives up. The finale is made up of one inconceivable event after the other, beginning with Ellen stealing her son’s boat in order to face the shark head-on. Michael Caine makes me laugh when recollecting the film in his autobiography. At the time, he wasn’t getting offered the best roles but everyone has to pay the bills. When it came to choosing a film to do from the pile of rubbish screenplays he had on his desk Jaws 4 stood out simply because it stated principle photography was to take place in the Bahamas. That clinched the deal for him.
Certainly, the sun-kissed location with its sparkling pearl blue water is idyllic and attractive. That the shark’s misdeeds fail to deter me from wanting to spend time splashing about in the sea’s of this paradise are both an indication of the sheer beauty of the Bahamas and a stark reminder of the ineffectual scares Jaws 4 serves up. The biggest criticism you can give the film is that Spielberg made us want to stay out of the water, but Sargent makes us want to go back in!
Written by Daniel Stephens
Directed by: Joseph Sargent
Written by: Michael de Guzman
Starring: Lorraine Gary, Lance Guest, Mario Van Peebles, Karen Young, Judith Barsi, Michael Caine
Released: 1987 / Genre: Thriller/Horror / Country: USA / IMDB