Bruce is Back: Jeannot Szwarc's Jaws 2
Apr 2, 2001
Review by Mike Bracken
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
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Jaws 2: MCA/Universal
Rating: USA: PG
Back in 1975, fledgling young filmmaker Steven Spielberg unleashed his monster shark film Jaws on unsuspecting audiences worldwide. The film (which I’ve reviewed here at Epinions, if you’re interested) was a resounding success—both in terms of box office receipts (it set records for earnings) and in making people afraid of swimming in the ocean. Simply put, Jaws was the prototype for the summer blockbuster—how fitting is it then that Jaws 2 would become the prototype for the horror movie sequel, a film that ups the stakes as far as the bodycount and gore are concerned?
Amity Island: Three Years Later
Plot wise, Jaws 2 bears quite a resemblance to Spielberg’s original film and Peter Benchley’s novel. Three years have passed since local cop Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) set out to battle the marauding great white shark that was terrorizing the small town of Amity Island. Brody won that battle, and one would assume that things then returned to normal.
However, another large great white has cruised into the local waters and has started chomping down on the local citizenry. Brody goes to mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton, sporting more bad blazers), but once again, Vaughn’s too worried about the good of the town (and his business dealings with a shady looking condo developer played by Joseph Mascolo—best known as Stefano DiMera on Days of our Lives) to do anything about it.
Brody takes matters into his own hands, and loses his job after causing a panic on a local beach (which turns out to be a false alarm). However, he’s not able to saunter off into the sunset since the shark’s still cruising the cool waters off the island and has set its sights on a group of day sailing teens—and both of Brody’s sons are out there.
A Tale of Two Films
Perhaps the most important thing to consider when watching Jaws 2 is that this isn’t the film that everyone signed on to make.
By all the accounts I’ve read over the years, the original script for Jaws 2 was a much more serious and character-driven affair, a script that had a lot in common thematically with the first film. In that script, Brody’s still haunted by his fear of the water and a newfound terror of sharks and his eldest son has inherited the hydrophobia. The condo angle is still there (as the driving force behind Vaughn’s reluctance to act upon Brody’s fears that another shark is in the water), as are the sailing teens, but overall the script seems to have placed a premium on humans and not creating people who were simply shark fodder.
Spielberg and Richard Dreyfuss were both approached about being part of the production, and both were reportedly interested (which is interesting—the original shoot was such a nightmare that one wouldn’t think Spielberg would be up for a second go-round). However, things fell through because both were tied up in shooting Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Universal wanted to release the film for the summer of 1978.
So, director John Hancock got the job—but was summarily fired for reportedly not making the film the studios wanted. Apparently, Hancock signed on to make the more character driven piece—and Universal got cold feet and decided to go with a much safer ‘teens in peril’ monster movie…a film Hancock had no interest in making. Jeannot Szwarc then took the helms—and gave us the film that was released in theaters…the ‘teens in peril’ monster movie Universal wanted.
The end result is a film that’s uneven throughout (particularly in terms of pacing), but still oddly watchable and occasionally terrifying. Still, one can’t help but wonder what might have been had Spielberg and Dreyfuss returned to the production, or even if Hancock would have been allowed to make the film he wanted. Had either of those events happened, Jaws 2 could have been a very special film, indeed.
Roy Scheider once again does a fine job as Martin Brody. Brody’s a likeable character that the audience can identify with and root for, and while he’s clearly above both the material and the rest of the cast here, he gives it his all anyway.
What makes Brody work is that Scheider manages to infuse him with a sense of the everyman—Brody’s an average Joe with an extraordinary problem, and because of this, he earns our sympathy from the outset. This is nothing more than a continuation of his performance in the first film, only this time, he’s on his own.
The first time out, Scheider had Robert Shaw and Dreyfuss to counterbalance his performance and add dimension (there’s sort of an Iron John thing going on in the second half of the original film). Here, he’s as alone as the cowering young girl he finds in her sailboat after an encounter with the great white, but he turns in a fine performance anyway. Scheider’s performance is far better than you’d expect to find in this kind of film—he manages to convey more in a glance or an expression than the rest of the cast does in pages of dialogue. When he comes home drunk after losing his job, you can literally feel his disillusionment and sorrow.
Lorraine Gary and Murray Hamilton reprise their roles from the original, and both are solid, but they’re peripheral characters—and as such, unable to really save the film. Instead of focusing on these characters and their situations (I’ve always thought that Vaughn’s conflict over being willfully ignorant in order to protect his investments should be explored more), we get to spend the second half of the film with a group of bland and uninteresting teenagers.
The only person Scheider really has to bounce his performance off of is the large rubber shark (nicknamed Bruce after Spielberg’s attorney). The shark gets a lot more screentime this time around (another sequel trend this film helped establish), but he’s not quite as developed as he was in the first film.
In the first film, the shark was a large predatory fish with a frightening intelligence—witnessed by the fact that eventually he starts hunting Brody and crew in the third act. The shark in this film simply comes across as an eating machine with a vendetta, and the vendetta seems more like a human trait attributed to the beast than something that would actually fall within the realm of possible shark behavior.
Complicating matters even more is the fact that this shark doesn’t look quite as good as the first one. Maybe it’s because it’s actually shown onscreen more, but it looks a bit too rubbery and his mouth just looks wrong. It’s nicer than CGI, but there are far too many scenes where the willing suspension of disbelief is shattered because the shark looks so obviously fake.
A common observation about this film is that it’s really just a slasher film with a shark as the madman. And while there’s certainly some validity to that (particularly when you consider that the shark goes after the teens, kills one who’s constantly engaging in sexual behavior, etc.), what many people fail to realize is that this film actually predates American slasher cinema.
Jaws 2 was released in June of 1978, predating Carpenter’s Halloween (a film largely credited with starting the slasher boom and establishing the fact that the virginal heroines lived, etc.) by several months and Sean Cunningham’s Friday the 13th by two years. So, in some ways, Jaws 2 has to be considered as one of the forefathers of the slasher canon, and Jeannot Szwarc as one of the early directors whose work influenced the field.
As for the rest of Szwarc’s direction, let’s call it passable.
The film lacks the visual flair that colored Spielberg’s original in nearly every way. There aren’t as many cool shots, not as many low angle views that put you in the water with the beast, etc. Spielberg’s film was a master thesis on how to create visual tension without showing a thing—no red in the film save for the blood, the use of the barrels to signify the shark’s presence without actually having to show the monster, and so on. Szwarc takes the easy way out, cramming Bruce in our face at every opportunity—but, to be honest, this is probably what most audiences wanted anyway. It’s far safer to see the rubber monster and feel comfortable in the knowledge that it’s not really scary because it’s fake than to have to not see it and let our imagination fill in all the details.
As mentioned above, the biggest problem is the pace. Spielberg’s film was concerned with the interactions between the characters, but it never dragged when the action was focused on something other than the shark. Here, the action drags each and every time the shark is out of the frame. Simply having dialogue scenes is not synonymous with having character development scenes, but Szwarc and crew don’t seem to realize that.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that John Williams’ score is back. It’s just as powerful as ever, and once again serves as a prime example of how to create tension through sound.
Finally, a word about the gore. The original film had a relatively low bodycount, but there was a fair deal of blood and guts. This time around, the bodycount is higher, but there’s really not much blood to be found. If you’re looking for gore, the first film is the way to go. If you don’t need blood, but just want to see lots of shark carnage, then this one’s the one for you.
Ultimately, Jaws 2 is unable to come anywhere near comparing to the original film. Scheider, Gary, and Hamilton all give solid performances, but unfortunately, the script’s more interested in doing a kids in peril story than any kind of adult oriented material. The end result is an entertaining (if occasionally slow) film that works as lighthearted fluff and a possible inspiration for countless slasher films yet to come.
While one may wonder what might have been had Spielberg returned to helm the film, or if the original script had been implemented instead, we’ll never really know. Yet, despite the flaws, this is easily the best of the sequels—I’m just not sure that means much of anything.
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Viewing Format: VHS
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
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