This week marks the 30th anniversary of "Jaws: The Revenge," which has the rare distinction of being the film to effectively kill the "Jaws" franchise (outside of assorted merchandise and that part where you pass by Amity on the Universal Hollywood back lot tour), since it has remained dormant for three whole decades, and also gave us an insightful look into how noted serious actor Michael Caine picks his roles (spoiler: it's the money). But there's something to be said for the movie, which spills over into the realm of the absurd almost immediately and splashes around in the waters of goofy insanity for the full runtime, never once pausing to consider things like logic, character motivation, or plot mechanics.
In a weird way, it was the fulfillment of an earlier promise by the studio to go in a more intentionally comedic direction and serves as the perfect "oh-hey-look-whats-playing-on-TBS" distraction for any low and doggish summer afternoon.
First, a bit of back story: after Roy Scheider refused to return for any more "Jaws" sequels, having only agreed to "Jaws 2" after quitting "The Deer Hunter" (yes, seriously, he would have played the John Savage part), the producers decided to get inventive. They turned to Matty Simmons, publisher of the National Lampoon, to oversee a new project, conceived as a spoof with the title "Jaws 3, People 0" (John Hughes and Tod Carroll wrote the script, which is completely bizarre and insider baseball-y). They'd even gone so far as to hire Joe Dante, who had made the delightful low budget "Jaws" send-up "Piranha" for Roger Corman. Eventually, cooler heads prevailed and the sequel was shelved, with the studio opting instead for whatever it was "Jaws 3D" ended up being. ("Jaws 3" was so bad that when Universal issued a press release for "The Revenge" they called it the "third film" in the series. Damn.)
When it came time to make "Jaws: The Revenge," the filmmakers, led by director Joseph Sargent (who made the genuine masterpiece "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3") chose to largely ignore the previous sequel (Chief Brody's son takes an unexpected career detour, amongst other things) and, although the tagline for the film is, "This time it's personal," things took a turn towards the fantastical and bizarre. The film follows Lorraine Gary, now playing Chief Brody's widowed wife Ellen, who, following the death of her son, travels to the Bahamas to live with her other son and her family, eventually becomes convinced that the shark is following her. Now, under the right circumstances (careful direction, artful performances, a deliberate emphasis on nuance and subtlety), this could almost be seen as a phantasmagorical exploration of grief. There is no shark, of course, but the bad luck that has befallen and her family could drive her insane, pushing her to increasingly extreme visions of the shark that, long ago, caused so much grief. It's not.Sequences, like the infamous "banana boat" attack, when a woman is eaten as the shark targets Mike Brody's young daughter Thea. (Yes, sharks definitely "target" people in this movie.) The shark literally leaps out of the water, like the Universal theme park version, and chomps on a middle-aged woman. It's absurd. Also absurd: pretty much anything involving Jake (Caine), an airplane pilot and Quint stand-in, and his stereotypical "island" cohort (played by Mario Van Peebles). In the final sequence (more on that in a minute), the shark again comes out of the water and this time it roars. If that wasn't insane enough, the roar that they used was supposedly recycled from an old "Tom and Jerry" cartoon. Yes, seriously.
If the movie wasn't trippy and odd enough, then let us take a closer look at the finale. There were actually two versions of the climax released by Universal. In the initial theatrical release our heroes pilot a boat into the shark (you know, because it spends more time hovering outside of the water than swimming through it). The dying shark shakes around and tears the boat apart, which puts our humans back in mortal danger. It's stupid as hell, but there are some nice flourishes; I love the blood that fountains out of either side of the shark (conceivably being kicked up by its gills).
Also, it's so incomprehensible that it takes on a kind of dreamlike feeling; "Jaws: The Revenge" as cubist masterwork. Roger Ebert, for his part, couldn't believe that the filmmakers "film this final climactic scene so incompetently that there is not even an establishing shot, so we have to figure out what happened on the basis of empirical evidence." (Occasionally this is the version they'll show on television.)
Universal, unhappy with the way the film originally ended, ordered a new ending for foreign and home video audiences. Now, when they ram the shark with the boat (which is, by the way, interspersed with flashbacks to the "Smile you son of a bitch" moment from the first movie, a flashback to something that Ellen Brody clearly wasn't around for), the editing becomes more chaotic and then the shark explodes. Why it explodes is anybody's guess. But like the rest of the movie, logic doesn't really matter and for much of the film's lifespan this has been the canonical ending that everybody has seen.
Still, it's hard not to get a kick out of "Jaws: The Revenge." Everything about it is so gloriously absurd, you can tell that everyone involved was just kind of going with it. It's the kind of movie that maybe you come across every five years and only see 10 minutes of it at a time and can't believe what you're watching is the actual movie, but it is. The gorgeous photography, filmed in Martha's Vineyard and The Bahamas, only adds to the surreal sensation the movie gives off.
It's so insane, in fact, that it tips into the comically absurd, something that the franchise had toyed with in the previous film. (The entire movie was completed in an astounding nine months.) Michael Caine, for his part, said, "I have never seen it. However, I have seen the house that it built and it's terrific."
Even without the house, it's kind of terrific.