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Deep Blue Sea

Review by KJ Doughton
Posted 6 August 1999

Deep Blue Sea   Directed by Renny Harlin.

Starring Samuel L. Jackson,
Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows,
LL Cool J, Michael Rappaport, Stellan Skarsgard,
Jacqueline McKenzie, and Aida Turturro.

Written by Duncan Kennedy,
Donna Powers, and Wayne Powers.

Deep Blue Sea, an idiotic patchwork of ho-hum action set pieces, is like a grab bag of assorted fish baits: everything in it stinks, but in different ways. Director Renny Harlin’s underwater follow-up to 1996’s The Long Kiss Goodnight is easily the dumbest movie of the summer, but once in awhile, it throws the audience a morsel of unanticipated surprise or suspense to string them along. Which is not necessarily a good thing: watching this frustrating hackwork is like drowning in the ocean and being thrown a defective life raft every so often, before the hole-riddled craft deflates and leaves you flailing about in the tide.

Deep Blue SeaAfter scientist Susan McAlester (Saffron Burrows) invents a way to potentially cure Alzheimer’s disease through brain cell experiments on mako sharks (don’t ask me to explain the logic), the stage is set for construction of an elaborate ocean research station, courtesy the dollars of investor Russell Franklin (Samuel L. Jackson). Aboard the elaborate deep-sea headquarters is your usual Alien-inspired motley crew of hunks, babes, and asexual supporting characters. It should be of no surprise that Barbie-doll Burrows will be required to strip down to undies by the final reel, and that badass shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) will survive long enough to perform several heroic, biceps-pumping deeds. Meanwhile, L.L. Cool J plays Preacher, a conflicted cook whose loyalties are torn between the good book and the bottle. The remaining inhabitants are onscreen just long enough to be ripped apart by the computer-generated mako sharks that are the true audience draws of Deep Blue Sea. To hell with characterization when you’ve got these torpedo-sleek killing machines, right?

But Harlin, who started his career with Finnish actioners such as 1986’s Born American and U.S. slasher flicks like 1988’s Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, has never been one for finishing touches. Even his successive big-budget entrees, including 1990’s Die Hard 2 and 1993’s Cliffhanger, always appeared a bit rough around the edges. This is a major deficit in an age dominated by action auteurs who don’t miss a beat when it comes to the precise visual details that have put Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and The Phantom Menace on a level of technical polish that leaves competing action-stable fare in the dust. In Deep Blue Sea, the sharks appear strangely unfinished, like the ones you’d expect to find generated in a shoot ‘em up arcade game. With its goofy suspense scenes marred by cliché, this leaves the film’s audience unable to even admire Deep Blue Sea as a technical achievement.

Basically, the film’s premise is that McAlester’s Alzheimer-related experiments have resulted in her guinea-pig makos achieving abnormal brain growth, and becoming "smart sharks" who strategically fight to escape the pens which imprison them inside the research compound. Meanwhile, a nasty storm results in incapacitation of the aquatic lab, causing power failures and explosions galore (lovingly rendered in slo-mo, from nearly every angle conceivable -- this is, after all, a Renny Harlin film). Can our toughened clan of shark researchers make it to the surface and escape, amidst all of the insatiable sharks, blocked stairwells, fiery corridors, and malfunctioning elevators?

The answer lies in a series of action scenarios that make up the latter two thirds of Deep Blue Sea. LL Cool J’s Preacher recites leftover sermons from Samuel Jackson’s Pulp Fiction hit man ("I will fear no evil, ‘cause I’m the meanest motherf**cker in the valley") as he uses everything in his kitchen arsenal, including an oven, to escape the saw toothed makos. In stripped down, Sigourney Weaver-style bra and panties, Burrows electrocutes one of the beasts in a far-fetched nod to the even dopier sharkfest, Jaws II. When a film uses this soggy sequel to Spielberg’s masterpiece as an inspiration, it’s a sad day for movies, indeed.

Deep Blue SeaHowever, there is one moment of absolute genius in Deep Blue Sea. To give even a shred of information would be to spoil the scene’s appeal, but let’s just say that the biggest, most redundant device in action movies -- the inspirational pep talk to rally together the troops -- is put to rest in classic fashion. Unfortunately, the rest of the film quickly sinks into a rank vat of stale cliches and outlandish scenarios. Action audiences aren’t the dumb clods that filmmakers apparently think they are, as evidenced by the straight-to-video deaths of such one-time big screens draws as Steven Segal and Jean Claude Van Damme. These days, genre pictures have to at least offer their formulas with a new spin. But by the time the brilliant scientists are on to the sharks’ less than surprising strategy ("They’re sinking the station to get out -- into the deep blue sea!"), the stench of yet another stagnant summer movie has set in. When Burrows offers herself as a Christ-like sacrifice so that Jane can get in that one last harpoon shot, I was alternating between nausea-inducing disgust and giddy laughter. Where are Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw when you need them?

Deep Blue Sea is yet another example of packing too much firepower into a ridiculous story with mere skeletons of characterization. Things blow up real good, and people are eaten alive. But who cares? The film’s classic inspiration, Jaws, is a reminder that full blown characters and thrills can lurk side by side, and actually compliment each other -- even amidst an unlikely premise. Meanwhile, John Woo’s Face/Off tempered its comic-level gunfire with respect for complex, full-blooded heroes and villains. No wonder the sharks always seem hungry in Deep Blue Sea. The folks they feed on are tissue-thin.

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