Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Just Look Bored: Jaws 2

by Rob DiCristino
“Sharks don’t take things personally, Mr. Brody.”

“What’s that one?” Brody asks Quint, pointing to the scar on the weathered captain’s forearm. “Oh, that’s a tattoo. I got that removed,” he responds, evasive and withdrawn for the first time since being hired to kill the shark stalking the citizens of Amity Island. What follows is the Indianapolis Speech, and you know how it goes. It’s beautiful and sad. It makes us forget we’re watching a movie for a few minutes. Most importantly, it grants weight to the relationship between the old man and the sea. Every time he barks an order, every time he refuses to return to the shore, we understand why. The young Hooper, listening to the irascible bastard describe the death of his shipmates and feeling genuine reverence for the first time, also has his reasons. He needs to prove his mettle as a scientist. He needs to show he’s not some rich kid with city hands, that his scientific knowhow could prove just as valuable as Quint’s thirst for revenge. And then there’s Chief Brody, who doesn’t want to be there at all. The weight of his job forces him to face his fear of the ocean, protect his family, and save his small island community from eco-nomic ruin. And he does. It’s awesome.
When Jaws 2 begins, Brody (Roy Scheider) is under no such pressure. He’s running late to some nonsense publicity event. Very little has changed on Amity Island, which is now deep under the thrall of hotel developer Len Peterson (Joseph Mascolo) and his integrated marketing campaign with Holiday Inn. A “Man of the Year” trophy honoring his maritime heroics collects dust on a shelf, but Brody has still failed to reap any spiritual reward. He’s still frustrated by Amity’s obsession with boats and beaches. He’s still a big city cop in a one-horse town. Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) is still a scheming douche nozzle, and Peterson’s interest in Mrs. Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) is threatening the chief’s status as top dog for the first time. Meanwhile, Mike and Sean Brody (Mark Gruner and Marc Gilpin) are galavanting around the sea with Mayor Dickwad Jr. (David Elliott) just as a new great white shark threatens Amity’s shores. When a dead diver’s camera is discovered and proof of the new menace is all but confirmed, Brody skips the bureaucratic posturing that cost lives last time around and starts opening fire on every shadow he sees. The city council takes issue with this approach, stripping Brody of his authority and forcing him to go shark hunting alone.

All this intrigue makes Jeannot Szwarc’s follow-up to Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece sound like a worthy elaboration on familiar themes, but the truth is that Jaws 2 loses interest in characterization around the forty minute mark and never finds it again. Its flat, plodding narrative shifts focus from the chief and his troubles to an gaggle of annoying teenagers (the film’s target audience) to whom we’re barely introduced and never really given a reason to care about. Sure, we want to see the shark in new and more exciting situations (the “wouldn’t it be cool if…” approach to action conceptualization), but dramatic tension comes from empathy, and Jaws 2 doesn’t have it. After several significant rewrites (including rejected scripts from Spielberg and 2001: A Space Odyssey creator Arthur C. Clarke) and the last-minute replacement of original director John D. Hancock (who felt the film should have a darker tone), the producers of Jaws 2 elected to skip the complicated character work in favor of the empty spectacle that would come to define the very summer blockbuster model the original Jaws helped establish. That was a deceptively-personal film about fear. This is a film made to sell lunch boxes, and it shows.
In his excellent essay “A Great White Murder Machine,” Jacob Knight argues that Jaws 2 should be reappraised not as a dramatic thriller, but as an early slasher (the film predates Halloween by a few months). It’s true that Bruce Two — sporting a menacing burn across his face, his slasher mask — meets the criteria: he hunts teens indiscriminately and strikes from the darkness without remorse. That makes Brody our Dr. Loomis, someone haunted by his past experiences with this unspeakable evil and determined to protect others from its wrath. The difference is that while the great movie monsters stand in for our darkest fears, this shark means nothing; it has nothing to do and nothing to say. In Jaws, the deaths of Chrissie Watkins and Alex Kintner strike a match in Brody that forces him across a threshold and into unknown territory. Each death is meant to escalate the dramatic tension. In Jaws 2, a killer whale washes up on the beach and confuses a few people for a day and a half. A lady dies by accident when she sets herself on fire. Amity Island itself is cold and empty this time around (likely a production mandate left over from Hancock’s earlier concept that no one corrected), and most of the beach-going extras look like they want to be anywhere else. The action stilted and flat; the camerawork lacks any discernible point of view. If Jaws 2 is a slasher, it’s a very bad one.

Worst of all, Jaws 2 is a film no one wanted to make. Roy Scheider famously trashed the idea of a sequel before production even began and only returned on the condition that he’d be let out of a contract dispute with Universal. He and Szwarc once came to physical blows and never agreed on the creative direction the film should take. Murray Hamilton’s scenes were shot quickly, his part greatly reduced so that the actor could be by his wife’s side while she underwent cancer treatment. Lorraine Gary’s part was altered several times, and the aforementioned subplot with Peterson (loosely inspired by the original novel, in which she has an affair with Hooper) was abandoned almost entirely. This leaves the film with exactly one effective story thread: Brody’s violent emotional breakdown and subsequent night of sorrow-drowning. Scheider is great in these scenes, embracing the few moments he’s given a chance to do something with the character before he runs off to save those irritating teenagers. We can only imagine how things would have turned out had Hancock been given a chance to execute his original vision for a darker and more contemplative film that had Brody and Amity coping with collective PTSD.
Most fans accept Jaws 2 as a mediocre-but-watchable entry in the series made worthwhile by Scheider’s performance and favorable comparisons to the two piles of flaming dog shit that followed. But it still lacks the grace and soul of its predecessor, and in many ways that is unforgivable. It lacks Jaws’ creativity and sense of adventure. Their absence speaks to the same lack of imagination and intellectual curiosity that our dim-witted Mayor Vaughn suffers from, proof that Universal didn’t truly understand the film it made, only the product it released. When talking about sequels, “good enough” is a common refrain; “What were you expecting?” is another. While these excuses work for some in a franchise landscape that often embraces repetition and nostalgia rather than story and character, they should not apply to Jaws 2, one of Hollywood’s first opportunities to define what a sequel could be. Universal could have made a smart, character-driven film led by almost any prestige director they wanted (Otto Preminger was allegedly among the big names on the initial short list), but they aimed for the middle and ended up with a middling mess. Ultimately, they didn’t know what they had with Jaws (much less how to replicate it), one of the many reasons why it was lightning in a very special bottle that will never be captured again.

8 comments:

  1. I love the way the shark is dispatched in Jaws 2 but the rest of the movie is a slog.

    I think Jaws could work if they rebooted it. You'll never touch the Spielberg movie but it's a good, suspenseful premise that I think a lot of directors could put a fun spin on as long as they are all stand-alone stories and not part of a universe or "Brody canon".

    Great write-up!

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    1. I don't know where I stand on a remake, but building the sequels around the Brody family is definitely one of the key mistakes of the series. Still, I would love to read the original script drafts that focused on the town's rebuilding and Brody's recovery (which apparently would have adapted the novel's mafia plotline to highlight the mayor's desperation). That coupled with Brody's ptsd could have made a decent movie, but none of that has to do with a shark, so I guess they figured screw it.

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  2. Just a quick correction, but Murray Hamilton didn't die until the late 80s. But he was outlived by his wife, and of course died of cancer, because everyone between 1952 and 1988 died of cancer.

    Jaws 2 is frustrating. As soon as the shark shows up, everything grinds to a halt. Not that it has to be Jaws, but it would've been nice if the filmmakers could have figured out some kind of dynamic to fight the shark, instead of just damsels in distress. I can't believe I'm saying this, but it would've been served better if it had taken a Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 approach, and just became absurd. Instead all we get is diminishing returns. Great article Rob!

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    1. Wow, great catch! Very sorry about that. I decoded to trust the making-of doc the disc on that one.

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    2. No worries, obviously. The only reason I knew was because I watched Too Scared to Scream none too long ago, and he has a cameo in that.

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    3. Michael GiammarinoJune 20, 2017 at 10:16 AM

      It could have been a very different movie. Howard Sackler was hired to write the first draft, which would have been a prequel about Quint and the Indianapolis. Sid Sheinberg didn't like the idea, put the kibosh to it, and hired John D. Hancock to direct.

      Hancock's version was completely different. It had a much darker tone. Amity is a ghost town, businesses have gone away. They open a resort and build condos on the island to try to get the economy going again, but they struck a deal with the mafia to get the job done, which was a subplot from Benchley's novel. It still dealt with the kids taking the boats out, though. Pre-production on the film took 18 months. Hancock shot half the movie, but the dailies weren't passing muster with the studio, and if I remember correctly, it's said that Hancock was taking too long to shoot. Supposedly Sheinberg asked Hancock to rewrite the film to have Mrs. Brody get on a boat to save the kids. That didn't fly with Hancock. Not sure if it was that fight or another fight, but Hancock was fired and they brought in Jeannot Szwarc to take over. Some of the kids were recast and some switched roles.

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  3. So interested what Hancock's version would have looked like!
    I was 10 when this came out and I saw it in the theater. I had never seen Jaws. 10-year-old me was blown away, and the audience I saw it with screamed, cheered and hollered throughout. It was an incredible experience - so I went back every Saturday for the next 6 weeks. Needless to say, my memories color my appreciation of Jaws 2. I have a special place for it in my heart. When I finally saw Jaws when it was rereleased a year (?) later, I leaned over to my friend right after Chrissy's death and said "that was scarier than anything in 2!".

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