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DVD Review: Jaws 2 (1978)

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When I first saw Jaws 2 in the summer of '78, I thought it was good; not great, but good. It reminded me to keep out of the water. Seeing it again now, it’s much more disappointing. The first Jaws was an instant classic, but worked very hard to be more than a monster movie — it also succeeded as a drama and an adventure.

Jaws 2 is mostly a monster movie, and fairly bad otherwise. Not 'so bad it’s good', but boring bad. The best scenes make it watchable, but only because they had a bigger budget than most monster movies.

The plot is simple and almost a dry run for Friday the 13th (1980). A bunch of foul-mouthed teenagers ignore a mean old man (in this case, the police chief) and get picked off, one by one, in various imaginatively brutal ways. Besides the return to the Amity Island location, the John Williams music makes you think you’re listening to a Jaws film. The great cinematography means you think you’re watching a Jaws film.

In the cast there’s Roy Sheider, Murray Hamilton, and Lorraine Gary again, but… it still doesn’t feel like a Jaws film. Even in 1978 I sensed the film was going to be lacking from the limp opening scene. Two divers are attacked underwater as they discover the wreck of the Orca (the only vague clue to the new shark's motivations). There's lots of thrashing about and fast cutting, but you don't see anything actually happen. It's not violent or interesting; it's just a lame plot point because the divers' camera goes off.

To make the new shark look more like a baddy, there's a very silly scene where it has to get hideously scarred (er, like The Phantom of the Opera). A woman, who tries to protect her boat by braining the shark with a can of fuel, merely looks like she's pouring it over herself. This scene is so poorly staged you barely understand what she's doing.

The story continues with many storylines and characters introduced, but few dramatic conclusions. There’s no need for so many teenagers. There are lots of romantic possibilities cued in, but nothing develops. The Mayor and the town hall committee hassle Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) to calm down. He has a hunch there's a new shark in town, but this just all drags out over the first half of the film.

The slack pace is slackened further by a montage of people on the beach and on the ocean having fun (backed by jolly John Williams music). In the first film, these were funny and ironic; here they just slow it down further. Meanwhile, a dozen kids, including Brody's own children, ignore the warnings and go sailing in their boats and katamarans. As the shark starts to pick on them, they collide with each other and get stranded at sea.

Brody finally gets proof there really is a shark and instantly rushes to the rescue of the teenagers (even though he doesn't know they are in trouble). But he hates water. He’s the one person on the island with no sailing or navigational skills, making him the worst man for the job. His growing ineptitude makes him look stupid, like when he's hitting his radio or wrecking the boat. Scheider must have cursed his luck when the script arrived.

Despite the eventual mayhem, I was distracted by the seventies trend of having many characters wearing super tight jeans. The camera seems to catch an awful lot of shots of guys' butts in often wringing wet denim, Roy Scheider (in shorts) included. I think a film is definitely in trouble if the viewer gets sidetracked in such a fashion. I'm sure it got laughs.

After the first Hollywood blockbuster and merchandising phenomenon that was Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg immersed himself in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978), leaving other directors to deliver a Jaws sequel. Jeannot Swarc was directing TV at the same time as Spielberg, including episodes of Columbo and Night Gallery, but it didn’t make him a replacement – it was an almost impossible task.

Truthfully, most of the low-budget Jaws rip-offs were better thought-out and they were released before Jaws 2. Piranha and Grizzly give you a much better deal. Orca The Killer Whale and Italy's Tentacles are enjoyably bad. Humanoids From the Deep was outrageous, the violence almost X-rated, and it threw in an Alien riff as well. Alligator had a dryly witty script by John Sayles. I could go on… it's a favourite movie sub-genre of mine — when animals attack.

To be fair, when the action comes in Jaws 2 it’s spectacular and convincing. Some of the death scenes are effectively shocking (yet relatively bloodless) and there are some spectacular and difficult stunts. Especially outrageous is the shark (swimming like a homing torpedo) chasing a water-skier and even attacking a helicopter! I enjoyed the look of the film, especially the beautiful shots showing a sunlit sea. I love the John Williams soundtrack, which expands on the themes of the first film.

This DVD release is only presented in stereo with an average film transfer. The film looks good, but not great. In my view, it still needs further restoration, a surround audio mix — all the help it can get. The DVD extras are thorough; indeed the documentaries are more interesting than the film itself. Keith Gordon, one of the few actors to continue with any success (acting in Dressed To Kill and Christine, and now working as a TV director on series like House), makes some interesting comments in his own short film.

If you want to know even more about the making of the film, there's always The Jaws 2 Log by Ray Loynd, which was released in Dell paperback at the time.

Jaws 2, a sequel too far, and also a big money-making hit.

Cue Jaws 3

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