Theres a lot Im willing to forgive about a movie involving Jason Statham battling a giant shark. If that movie draws from the well of easy plot fixes, thats O.K. Those little cheats and elisions will, after all, eventually lead to Jason Statham—Britains answer to us showing them Vin Diesel and saying, “Who ya got?”—fighting a shark. If some supporting characters in this epic tale of man vs. marine marauder still have the tags from the stock-character store hanging off them, thats no bother; Jason Stathams still gonna punch that fish.
What Im saying is that I went into The Meg (opening August 10), the new movie in which Statham squares off against a prehistoric behemoth about 10 times the size of Jaws from Jaws, with a great, generous capacity. I wanted to love Jon Turteltaubs movie as I desperately wish to love all things these days, or at least anything that seems kindly aimed at amusing us as skies darken and we tilt into ruin. And The Meg is hip to some of its silly appeal. The marketing campaign has fun with wordplay (“Opening wide,” the posters read); the movie itself offers up some playful winks meant to reassure us, in the Sharknado vein, that its in on the joke.
Only most of those winks are unearned. The Meg is bad, but only rarely in the fun way. Maybe it would be better if it was trashier, like one of those garish (and, frankly, unwatchable) Syfy gag movies. Or perhaps it should be more elevated, sleeker and sexier in all its seabound scares. As is, though, the movie exists in some uncomfortable expanse of lifeless ocean in between, dumb enough to be annoying, but not enough (or in the right way) to be a riot.
Even the usually capable Statham is off. Playing expert aquatic rescuer Jonas Taylor (the protagonist in a series of novels, the first of which is the basis of this movie), he has trouble locating the rough-hewn suavity that has made him a star. Hes best when hes a tough guy gone good, but in The Meg, he has no such redemptive trajectory: he starts a hero and ends one, despite the films attempts to give him some shading in the form of anguish over an old accident. Statham seems itching for something wicked to do, and loses himself in all that squirming. His voice takes on a strange new tone—at first, I thought he was trying to do an American accent.
There are a few Americans in the film, chief among them Rainn Wilson, brought in to play a shifty billionaire whos funded a deep-sea exploration project. (Theres also Page Kennedy as a lab tech saddled with some unfortunate humor reminiscent of LL Cool J in 1999s Deep Blue Sea. Kennedys character is even named DJ.) But this is a pretty international production, funded by Chinese money and taking place off the coast of Shanghai. To that end, Chinese idol Li Bingbing has been enlisted to support Statham, her star quality shining through a stiff sketch of a character.
The most important player, though, is of course the titular big-ass shark, a C.G.I. creation of middling wonder. Poor Meg. She just doesnt inspire much awe. The movie is too rushed an adventure to deliver on her grand potential. We meet her awfully quickly, and then there she just is, a programmatic sort of menace. (At least the shark terrorizing Blake Lively in The Shallows had the integrity to ask for some motivation.) Meg is discovered in, and unleashed from, a deep, deep sea ecosystem that the movie disappointingly declines to explore. What other terrifying things might lurk down there—a whole alternate Skull Island beneath the waves? Alas, the movie isnt interested in investigating any of that.
Nor is it terribly invested in logic, which is sometimes a good thing for a movie like this—who wants rules and consistency when they would only hamper all the gleeful madcappery? But The Meg sort of arrogantly assumes it doesnt need to maintain any sort of shape, figuring that well lap up the silliness no matter how unwieldy and formless it all gets. Thats a miscalculation; the good kind of dumb fun is savvier and slyer than that. It takes work to make stupid art, work that The Meg either cant or refuses to do. Deep Blue Sea is also a deeply dumb shark-science-gone-wrong movie, but its just thoughtful (yes, thoughtful) enough to keep its desperate bid for schlock cult status from becoming obnoxious. The Meg, devoid of much cleverness, doesnt avoid that pitfall.
Which isnt to say the movie is without its small pleasures. I chuckled at a few sight gags, especially one including a tiny dog paddling furiously through the water. (Then again, when isnt it funny to see a tiny dog doing that?) There are a few moments in the big climax, involving a bunch of panicked beachgoers, when The Meg offers a tease, like a fin peeking up to the surface, of what the movie could be: chaotic but choreographed, bright and cartoony, but threaded with genuine danger.
Alas, those spells are brief, and before too long, Meg and Jason Statham have lost us again, all their thrashing in vain. How can we laugh with them, and in so doing pardon them for their filmmaking sins, when they give us so little to laugh about?
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