Jaws is the best film ever made. Because of this, everyone and their cousins were inspired to make a shark movie. Some were either courageous enough or stupid enough to actually get their shark movies made. There are A LOT of shark movies. In spite of all my poundin’ and hollerin’ and screamin’, I am going to watch them all. I don’t know what will be left of me afterwards.
The Flick: Shark Attack (1999)
The Chum: Casper Van Dien, Ernie Hudson, Bentley Mitchum, Jenny McShane (actors), Bob Misiorowski (director)
Species of Shark: Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias), blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus)
The Meat of the Movie: I will never forget Starship Troopers. I remember seeing the trailer for the first time in the theater, and how my father and I both simultaneously turned and looked at each other, giving two of the most testosterone-fueled nods of affirmation in the history of nods. It was a foregone conclusion that we would be seeing this movie, and see it we did. I was convinced that Casper Van Dien’s role as Johnny Rico was going to turn him into the next mega action star.
Just two years later, I was renting Shark Attack from the Ma and Pa video store that I worked at (which had the awesome moniker of The Video Store), and my testosterone-fueled nod had transformed into a disbelieving shrug.
The film starts with a guy who looks like the real-world model for Stretch Armstrong coming up from a dive with a black box that is making a thump noise. Spoiler alert: this device is called a thumper. Stretch stares at it with a face as stiff and hardened as the decades-old corn syrup inside of him.
Stretch begins to send an email using The Net (that’s what we called it in the ’90s), but his computer is interrupted by being smashed to bits, courtesy of two police officers who also take this opportunity to knock Stretch unconscious. Immediately after this Human Attack, the title for the film pops up. This does not bode well for the number of shark attacks in Shark Attack.
These two police officers (who I’m going to call Law and Order because there’s a bumper sticker on the side of their boat that says just that) cut Stretch’s arm and throw him in the water, and he is promptly yanked down by a shark. Guess we’re going to be spending the rest of our running time finding out who Stretch was and what he was doing. That’s not going to detract from focusing on shark attacks at all, will it? At least Stretch seems to be having a good time, as it looks like he’s cracking up right before getting turned into chum.
We cut away and are introduced to Johnny Ri- er, Steven McKray, the sexiest marine science professor in the history of the field. He listens to a voicemail from Stretch asking him to come visit and help figure out why a whole bunch of shark attacks are happening in Africa. After consulting with his colleague/boss while scaling one of those rock climbing walls that you see at indoor malls, Steven is off to Africa.
There’s a brief scene where we see Stretch’s associate, Dr. Miles Craven (definitely a good guy name if I’ve ever heard one), dissecting a blacktip and out pops Stretch’s arm. Craven is played by Bentley Mitchum a.k.a. what happens when you cross a 35-year-old Kevin Smith with a 12-year-old Henry Thomas.
Once Casper the Friendly Hunk lands at Port Amanzi, he’s greeted by Winston Zeddemore, who has given up ghostbusting in favor of becoming a real estate mogul in this small corner of Africa. What a shame, since all the shark attacks have made fishing impossible and have caused most of the businesses to shut down. No way is Winston going to benefit from these circumstances! Real estate moguls are always stand-up characters in these kinds of movies.
Steven hitches a ride with comic relief fisherman-turned-taxi driver Mani, who I swear is the emaciated twin brother of Oded Fehr.
At the marine research center, Steven and Miles play catch-up and the undercurrent of jilted love between these two is enough to power a top-of-the-line vibrator. Deflating this romantic reunion is the delightfully cheap set decoration of a cardboard Earth on the wall. What makes this even better is that Miles is lording over Steven how much better his resources are compared to Steven’s at the university. Kind of hard to stick that argument when your interior design was handled by Mrs. Terwilliger’s fourth grade art class.
Miles informs Steven of Stretch’s death, so Steven seeks out Stretch’s sister Corrine, who is drowning her sorrows in a glass of water at the local bar. Corrine is played by actress Jenny McShane, but I think that’s just the stage name of a drag queen who performs as Randy “The Ram” Robinson from The Wrestler.
As Corrine blames Steven for getting her brother into the fieldwork part of marine research, a time portal opens up off-screen and Richard Dreyfuss’ character from Piranha 3D strolls out of the future to pick a fight with Steven because the bar he’s in is for fisherman only.
A bar brawl breaks out, and the fight choreography on display is somewhere between The Gorn battle in Star Trek and two kids smacking each other with Sock’em Boppers. Steven easily dispenses with these down-and-out gentlemen and proceeds to instantly change Corrine’s opinion about him. How? Have you seen 1999 Casper Van Dien? His Apollo-like face could have solved all conflict in the Middle East if we had just given him a chance.
…uh, where was I? Right, Shark Attack. Steven and Corrine go examine Stretch’s boat and find that his dive watch is on board. If he was diving when he died, then why didn’t he have his dive watch on? MYSTERY! Steven uses the boat’s GPS to determine where Stretch was spending most of his time, and plans to investigate what led to his death.
Back at the dock, we’re treated to the usual “You can’t go with me because you’re a girl!” back and forth between Steven and Corrine, but their progressive scenario comes to a halt when Dreyfuss shows up for round two. Before they can throw down, the film remembers that it’s called Shark Attack and some random kid out in a canoe gets tipped into the water. Steven and Dreyfuss both jump in to save him, and just before the shark can bite into a rack of Rico ribs, the guys make it back onto the docks in the nick of time. The sight of Casper Van Dien’s sopping wet frame makes Dreyfuss reconsider his feelings about Steven, and the two part as allies.
Steven heads out to the dive spot with Mani, but it looks like Corrine has beat them to it. Steven and Corrine both go underwater and find a thumper placed inside of a shipwreck. Now ain’t that intrig— holy shit, a shark is attacking! The filmmakers wisely use a lot of cuts to mask how ragged their shark puppet looks, but during later segments of the film, we get a decent look at it and you know what? It ain’t half bad!
It ain’t half good, but you gotta take what you can get here on Fin Flicks.
Our male and female leads manage to escape from the shark, but on their way to the surface, a net gets dropped on top of them. The native tribe is pissed off that they are diving here, and they want them to leave. …So they do. Thrilling. This scene does provide my favorite shot in the film: a tribe member who looks unbearably cool while doing nothing more than just paddling a boat.
Steven and Corrine confront Miles about the thumper, and Bentley Mitchum’s inability to act innocent makes me kind of love him. He’s in the middle of doing some tests that are “nothing interesting” and certainly won’t be revealed to be nefarious. Shark Attack is not proving to be the best at subverting the deductive power of the audience.
Unconvinced that things are all hunky-dory, Steve and the gang head back out to catch a shark and examine it. This leads to a scene where a shark is flopping around on the deck of the boat, and the flopping is achieved the same way the octopus from Bride of the Monster was convincingly brought to life. Mani kills the shark with a bang stick, but not before Steven is knocked to the ground and we get some wonderfully bizarre product placement courtesy of Reebok.
Upon conducting an autopsy on the shark, Steven discovers that the brain is inflamed, leading Corrine to mispronounce the word encephalitis. I’m sure this has nothing to do with Miles uninteresting experiments. …Wait a second. Experimenting on sharks that increases their brain size? Where have I heard that plot before?
Anyway, after checking in with Zeddemore to reestablish that he’s closing a bunch of shops down, Steven and Corrine look at some shark blood underneath a microscope. I’m not learned enough to know if the footage they use is of real cells, but these things look like communion wafers floating around in a fish tank.
Some science stuff is spouted, but who cares about that when there’s some random tourist woman getting her leg munched on by a great white? Good thing Steven is there to dive in and save her, since that seems to be his other occupation in this film.
Later, everyone is having dinner at Zeddemore’s place and Steven is pressuring Miles about what’s luring the sharks to the populated areas. Forget the specifics of the plot, because what this scene really does is zero in on the homosexual tension bristling between Steven and Miles. Examine this exchange:
Miles: “Steven has always enjoyed testing me.”
Steven: “You’ve always enjoyed it more, Miles.”
Immediately after this, Miles sensually holds a cigar up to his face to smell it. Sorry, Sigmund Freud, but sometimes a cigar IS a penis.
And to top it off, the next scene has Miles putting his arm on Steven’s shoulder and saying, “I forgot how well you knew me.” Light some candles and throw Let’s Get It On into the CD player, you two.
Miles takes Steven and Corrine back to his lab and reveals that he’s been working a drug that will cure cancer thanks to sharks. Oddly enough, this film premiered two months before Deep Blue Sea. Hmmm…
Well, Miles shows that he’s given the drug to a local sick kid and it totally works! No way it’s going to backfire on him later!
Steve and Corrine go out diving and locate more of the thumpers, and because the movie needs some more shark attacks to justify its title. On one of these dives, Law and Order show up and knock Mani out. They detach the cage Steven and Corrine are in, but they make it back up thanks to Steven’s nifty trick with a scuba tank.
Some more science stuff tells us that Miles is enhancing the sharks’ brains with a growth hormone (someone call Renny Harlin’s lawyers!), but before they can investigate further, Law and Order knock them both out and dump them in the water. Thanks to a scuba tank that fell off during a previous dive scene, our two heroes survive and make it back to shore. They call the police, but Law and Order ARE the police!
Mani picks up Steven and Corrine and a TV movie car chase ensues. I have to give Shark Attack this: the car chase is okay. We even get two car explosions! I approve.
Steven and Corrine sneak back to the hospital Miles took them to and, big surprise, find out the drug has made things worse. This is a sickness not even Casper Van Dien’s face can cure.
After sneaking into Miles’ lab and copying all of his test data, Steven is caught by Miles and Bentley Mitchum goes for broke with his bad guy acting. I can’t do it justice with words, but he’s almost awfulsome enough to justify the film’s existence. Miles asks Steven for the disc, but Steven throws it into the water. Corrine has been hiding out nearby this whole time and creates a distraction, giving Steven enough time to get the disc back. Unfortunately, Corrine gets captured.
Now we get a boat chase with gunplay, fist fighting and even a makeshift bomb that blows up a boat! Shark Attack might not be putting its budget into the sharks, but at least its deferring that money towards some acceptable action sequences.
Miles calls Steven and offers to trade Corrine for the disc. Mani and Steven head that way, but not before seeing Zeddemore’s private helicopter flying off towards Miles’ research center. Sensing some suspicious activity, Steven kicks open the door to Zeddemore’s office and finds some paperwork indicating something about British Off-shore Petroleum. …Huh? Oh, so there’s another bad guy plot involving selling the port to some oil company? Wasn’t one bad guy plot enough?
So, everyone meets at the research center, plans are divulged, and our climatic action sequence begins. The local fisherman all attack the center (thanks to being rallied by Mani), and we get some nice railing deaths, more bad fight choreography and cheesy shootouts. TV movie gold. Corrine gets revenge for Stretch’s death by killing Law (or Order. I never took the time to properly assign their names), and Miles even saves Steven at one point, but is immediately killed by Zeddemore firing a harpoon (phallus) through his chest.
Miles tearfully tells Steven that “he wasn’t such a bad guy,” and Steven replies with a Han Solo-y “I know.”
Zeddemore tries to escape on his helicopter, but Steven knocks him out into the water. Best part of this sequence: the helicopter explosion. Not only is it great because helicopter explosions are always great, but the footage is clearly from another movie. The helicopter is totally different, and the cherry on top is that you can see the crane that was being used to guide the helicopter to its death. Glorious.
Sadly, that’s the real climax of the film. Zeddemore and Steven fight to get on top of a buoy, and Zeddemore unsurprisingly loses. His death by shark is nothing special, especially for the disposal of a film’s big bad.
The town is saved, Mani and Steven hug, Steven and Corrine kiss, and I go hunting on my shelf to find my DVD of Starship Troopers so I can travel back to an era where no one would have dreamed of Casper Van Dien being relegated to DTV crapfests. If anyone could use a Quentin Tarantino role to help put some polish on his star, it’s Casper.
Best Meal: While she doesn’t get killed, the tourist woman who dangles her leg off the side of a boat and gets it chomped is the most entertaining attack in the film.
How the Shark Gets Sushi-ed: The only one killed onscreen is shot in the head with a bang stick.
The Mindless Eating Machine: A liberal amount of great white footage is used, a few real dead sharks (boo), and one grizzled looking puppet that I can’t help but love.
Shark Stupidity: I know they are trying to write off any abnormal shark behavior as a result of all the scientific experimentation going on, but sharks don’t get this worked up for people meat. Why don’t we see sharks attacking each other if they are so crazed?
Hilarity Factor: Thanks to a steady level of clunky but never grating performances, the chuckles are fairly consistent on this one. Bentley Mitchum alone beefs this category up big time. His “acting” is the crown jewel of this film where laughs are concerned.
Sink or Swim?: I should mention that this isn’t my first tango with the Shark Attack franchise. My opinions about the later films always soured me on this original entry. It doesn’t embrace its goofy nature quite like the rest of the series, and it’s too removed from the sharkier aspects of its story as the film progresses (the fact that there are only two kills in the film, and that they bookend the movie, is definitely a significant minus against Shark Attack). But, on its own (and certainly in comparison with some other Fin Flicks *cough*Dark Tide*cough*), Shark Attack isn’t terrible. It’s surprisingly competent for a TV movie, and there’s just enough bare bones action and unintentional humor to keep the film from being a snore. I can’t say it’s a Swim, but more along the lines of a Wade. If it was willing to dive into the deep end, it’d probably be more memorable and maybe even worth recommending.
Next Time: The Shark Attack series continues with Shark Attack 2, the sequel we didn’t know we needed.
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