The most unkindest bite of all
"I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific."
It is commonly observed of Jaws: The Revenge - in those fortunately rare moments when Jaws: The Revenge is brought up to begin with - that it establishes the widest gulf in quality between two movies in a given franchise ever. This is accurate, and a little bit superfluous; it's the kind of thing that only really needs to be quantified because Jaws: The Revenge exists, and is so infinitely worse in every possible way than the first Jaws that it feels like you might be able to deal with it better if it were possible in some way to quantify it. But it's really not even a close race for second place: in order to find a franchise that spans the gamut of masterpiece to absolute bottom-scraping shit more thoroughly, you'd have to find a movie better than Jaws to start with, which is hard; or you'd have to find a movie worse than Jaws: The Revenge, which is almost harder. The Star Wars series doesn't really come close: for all their flaws, it's a stretch to say that The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are any worse than most soulless summer blockbusters. Rocky IV almost gets us to bad-enough territory, but I don't suppose anybody seriously considers Rocky a better film than Jaws. Ditto Hannibal Rising and The Silence of Lambs (or Manhunter, if that's how you roll). The James Bond franchise deserves a seat at the table, but let's not start getting silly. If there are any other obvious candidates, I cannot immediately call them to mind.
Now, this may seem like a transparent attempt to fill up space without talking about the movie itself, and that is because there's not much that's less fun to do than to seriously grapple with Jaws: The Revenge, which surely deserves to be counted among the very worst big-budget studio tentpoles of the 1980s. If you have seen it, you might be thinking at this point, "What the heck is he talking about? That movie was a cheap rush job! Just look at how awful the effects are!" And they certainly are awful, which is a cool comfort when we note that at $23 million, Jaws: The Revenge was the most expensive film in the franchise (not adjusted for inflation; but what's really unnerving is that, even adjusted, Jaws remains the cheapest of the four). It's hard to say where, exactly, the money went. Up the producer's nose would be one guess, or maybe the entire film had been shot and then they accidentally dropped the film into the ocean, and had to redo it from the start. And then they did the exact same thing again. That would at least explain why this film's shark prop, though in some respects the most advanced in the series - it's on rods and all, and they could film it from all sorts of angles that hadn't been possible before, and you can only see the rods some of the time - looks like it was covered in tattered burlap. It is a seriously ratty, sorry thing, looking not just incompetently made but badly aged on top of it. The only thing that keeps it from being the shittiest shark mechanism in the entire series is that horrid stiff baby shark prop in Jaws 3-D, although that at least felt sort of desperate; in Jaws: The Revenge, you sort of get the feeling that they were actually showing off their raggedy-ass patchwork fish - it gets a lot of screentime.
The film returns to the familiar streets of Amity at Christmastime, after the last film's Florida vacation, though as becomes obvious soon enough, Michael de Guzman's screenplay doesn't really exist in the same continuity as Jaws 3-D, less because he is trying to return the story to its roots, and more because he basically doesn't seem to give a damn (and if you were assigned this project, and given the limitations he was, you would like not give a damn either). After some POV shots at the surface of the water in the harbor outside of town, set to a pumped-up orchestration of John Williams's classic theme (it doesn't really work for me, but it's still the best thing, by far, in the movie), we arrive in the home of our old friends, the Brodys; though one of the first things we learn is that Martin Brody has passed away in the ten-plus years or so since Jaws 2 (Roy Scheider was approached, and turned the project down flat, partially because of the callous things they intended to do with the character). Which leaves our hero for the evening as none other than Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary), who has not to this point been exactly the reason we've bothered with any of these movies, but okay. She's making dinner with her younger son Sean (Mitchell Anderson), and they swap all kinds of irritating banter that supplies us with exposition in the most painfully ham-fisted way possible. I will spare you the pleasure of sharing it with you.
Eventually, Sean, who has followed in his dad's footsteps and become a policeman in Amity, is sent to deal with an annoying problem out in the harbor: a a pole has gotten itself lodged on a buoy. It's not his job, exactly, but nobody else is around to handle it (one of the other officers is off helping with a cow-tipping incident; I was all set to make fun of this, but it turns out that there are in fact cow farms on Martha's Vineyard, the real-life analogue and filming location for Amity). In his little boat out in the water, Sean does indeed find the pole, and does not notice, though we do, that it is covered with bite marks. And then a shark jumps out of the water and takes off his arm (reluctantly defending Jaws: The Revenge, part 2: it is often said that the water is already bloody before the shark attacks Sean. That's certainly how it looks, but it's just the red light from the buoy reflecting on the water). This is ironically contrasted with the local high school choir practicing their Christmas carols, demonstrating that de Guzman and director Joseph Sargent (who has some actual great films in his career, and should not have been reduced to this) have ever seen any movie.
Ellen is traumatised, so she goes to the Bahams where her elder son Michael (Lance Guest), his wife, Carla (Karen Young), and their shrilly "cute" daughter Thea (Judith Barsi) are living in tropical luxury while he completes his doctoral work before becoming a proper marine biologist. There she flits with the local rapscallion of a pilot, Hoagie (Michael Caine, who famously took the role mostly for a free vacation, and to pay off a new mortgage), and there is a shark, and blah blah blah. It ends with the shark roaring over and over like Godzilla storming through Tokyo - a gross distortion of the comparatively discrete growl the shark emits in Jaws 3-D - and then it is pierced with a boat's broken prow and it blows up like a goddamn Death Star full of blood. I mean blows right the fuck up. Did you know that sharks were combustible? Michael de Guzman did.
At only 89 minutes, Jaws: The Revenge is unquestionably the flimsiest of the Jaws pictures, taking a solid hour to even start to remember that there is a shark going on in all of this, devoting a huge portion of its running time to character dramas that never go anywhere, either because Michael and Carla Brody are tremendously uninteresting to watch (not helped at all by two relentlessly poor performances: Guest's is worse, he stands around looking like he needs to devote all of his brain space to remembering how to breathe), or because the parts of the script where all the innuendo about Hoagie - CHRIST, that name - is paid off don't land. It is savagely dull, though at least it is tremendously incompetent as well, and thus marginally amusing, especially when the shark is actually onscreen.
But let's not go too fast: let us return to that cameo-then-dead scene for Sean Brody - which was initially intended for Martin Brody, and now maybe we see why Scheider decided that this was not the right job at that point in his life - when it becomes clear that in grand '80s horror fashion, the killer in Jaws: The Revenge fashioned a cunning trap for its victim, the kind that involves a number of uncontrollable contrivances working out just so (seriously, cow-tipping). Lots of killers like that in '80s movies. This one, however, is unique in being a 20-foot Great White shark.
That, of course, is the Original Sin from which Jaws: Oh, The "Revenge", Good Jesus can never recover: it presents its shark as being an implacable killer out to take vengeance on the entire Brody family and all their kin. This was actually mooted in Jaws 2, in a rather feeble attempt to give that film some extra plausibility: Martin Brody asks a marine biologist if the shark he'd killed in the first movie could have communicated its death throes out to the shark world at large (he uses the whale comparison, because apparently he is totally stupid). "Sharks don't take things personally", she replies drily. HA HA, THE JOKE IS ON YOU marine biologist from Jaws 2 whose name nobody cares about because it isn't Matt Hooper. Sharks do take things personally in the fucked-up world these films take place in. How, exactly, the shark we are currently dealing with is related to the first two is absolutely not clear; but the blood feud is there, and that is partially why the body count is so low here: because this shark is not an indiscriminate machine, but a ruthless assassin. That does, in fact, kill one non-Brody for no reason later on, when a Brody is just right there for the taking. And later fails to kill two people who both absolutely should have died, except for bullshit reveals later that, in the face of all the evidence, they're fine. One of these was the result of test audiences, the other is because Michael Caine is too famous to kill. Caine is asked how he escaped, and his answer is pure Bad Movie genius: "It wasn't easy!" And he probably throws "bloody" in there five or six times, because that is how this script characterises British people.
Better yet, I mean, let's allow that sharks are intelligent, and have a rigid sense of honor, better yet is how it keeps track of where the Brodys are. As is quietly but unmistakably suggested at least three separate times, the shark has a psychic connection to Ellen Brody.
That's not a story that anybody was going to turn into high art, and maybe that's why Sargent just up and gave up trying; everything here is slack and flat, proving that, in fact, you can be incompetent to make the Bahamas look boring on camera. It really is a miracle of not caring: what he didn't steal from the first movie has no personality at all. And what he does steal from the first movie is plain offensive, particularly including a scene where Michael and Thea recreate the famous Martin/Sean dinner scene with facial mugging, only here it's awful and not sweet, and to make sure that we Get It, even after a flashback to that exact same scene earlier in the movie, Ellen says, "I remember when your dad did that", or however she exactly says it. I'm not looking it up. Later, Ellen gets her own version of the steely-eyed "smile you son of a bitch" moment, and it is even worse, though thankfully much shorter.
It's not scary at all, it's not fun at all, but it is apocalyptically stupid. That counts for a little something. And Caine, bless his mercenary whore's heart, is quite content to just goof off and have fun, and in the midst of a whole lot of stiff performances and one phenomenally bad Caribbean accent perpetrated by Mario Van Peebles as the funny ethnic sidekick, Caine's shit-eating grin and freewheeling attitude actually even save his scenes, a little bit. This it not something to take for granted: no stranger to really bad movies, Caine doesn't always grace them with even a halfway decent performance, as the legendarily rancid The Swarm proves.
One cheesy Michael Caine performance is not, of course, very much in the plus column, and Jaws: The Revenge is pretty much uniformly a waste of time. Though a tremendously zesty waste of time; if you can survive the ungodly first half, with its wall-to-wall character scenes, the staggering ineptitude of the shark effects is enough for a laugh; and the first half is furthermore so adept at breaking your spirit that you'll be extra-grateful for that laugh, and it will seem even better than it deserves. As falls from grace go, they don't get a whole lot more comprehensive.
Reviews in this series
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Jaws 2 (Szwarc, 1978)
Jaws 3-D (Alves, 1983)
Jaws: The Revenge (Sargent, 1987)