I think we may have another shark problem. Just when audiences thought it was safe to go back in the water, Jaws 2 swam into theaters. Readers of Film Sentinel will be aware we’ve been reviewing Steven Spielberg movies on this blog as a part of Series Spielberg. As an addendum to that series, we are going to continue sailing forward with the Jaws franchise, though the sequels famously had no involvement of Steven. The best of these sequels is Jaws 2 – Things certainly started here to get silly, but the ocean floor of this series would be yet to come, and would prove to be a far greater depth than Jaws 2.
First, a recap: Jaws, along with Star Wars, is greatly responsible for molding the summer blockbuster season as it exists today. Centering on a great white shark terrorizing the summer resort community of Amity Island, Jaws was released during what was typically considered the cinematically dead season of summer, and the film was a staggering success. It was only Steven Spielberg’s second film that he directed for theatrical distribution, and it was his breakthrough into the mainstream, as well as a full demonstration to audiences of his directorial prowess.
Immediately into the success of Jaws, Universal demanded a sequel. Spielberg, however, wanted no part of it, and lambasted the very idea of sequels, though he would later cite his troubles of shooting at sea on the first film as reason for his disinterest in Jaws 2. The film had three times the budget of the original, but Jaws 2 was every bit as troubled a production as the first. In addition to the difficulty of filming on the ocean, the original director John D. Hancock was fired and replaced by Jeannot Szwarc, whom Roy Scheider, the film’s star, greatly detested.
The plot of Jaws 2 is very much like the plot of the first: a great white shark terrorizes the residents and vacationers of Amity Island. Though this time around, everyone has experienced this before. Chief Brody (Scheider) has some shark PTSD, and he’s not going to go through that hell again. However, the mayor (Murray Hamilton) is resistant again to take precautions. The two wrangle, and Brody gets fired. Meanwhile, his two sons and a bunch of teenagers go sailing and get attacked by the shark, leaving them adrift at sea. So Brody rushes in and kills another shark.
The greatest sin of Jaws 2 is that it exists at all. The entire premise of the first film hinges on the improbability of its concept, that of a gargantuan great white shark swimming into warmer waters, and intentionally feeding on humans. The odds that it would happen so soon again, and in the same place, are preposterous. However, remove any connection to the characters or setting, and you have essentially nothing more than a Jaws rip-off. And in all actuality, the film’s strong connection to the original is its main selling point that the later sequels can’t provide.
A very frustrating element to the film is how that Amity Island is faced with exactly the same crisis for the second time, and no one but Chief Brody is willing to admit that it’s even happening. Of course, given the implausibility of the film’s premise that I discussed above, the characters that are in denial are actually behaving in a realistic fashion, but given the fact that they’re in a sequel to a film about a killer shark, the reality that they’re wrong is so plainly obvious that this aspect to the story is more of an issue than any breach in realism would be.
In the original Jaws, and even more so in the novel it’s based on, one of the most valuable features was the political conflict contrasting the competing interests of economic activity and public safety, a theme that is startlingly relevant in our current age of coronavirus. In fact, the idea that history would repeat itself and public officials would be so thick as to not have learned their lesson strikes me as quite relatable, but to see this played out in Jaws 2 resonates as little more than a retread and a recycled plot line, illustrating the folly of making a sequel at all.
But again, what makes Jaws 2 special is how closely related it is to the first film, as neither of the following sequels would offer as many members of the beloved original cast, nor would they spend as much time on Amity Island. However, a crucial element is still missing, and that is the flawless chemistry of the trio of male leads that Jaws 2 is inevitably without. Quint died in the original, and Richard Dreyfuss refused to reprise his role as Hooper without the involvement of Spielberg. However, we do still get Roy Scheider, Murray Hamilton, as well as Lorraine Gary.
Considering Roy Scheider collided with Szwarc so much during filming (a meeting even broke down into a fist fight once), Scheider still submits a dedicated performance as Brody similar to his role in the first. What’s unfortunate though is how glum and short-tempered Brody is in this film, due to his frustration with the Mayor and others. Scheider’s anger with Szwarc likely also fed into the role. Murray Hamilton returns with his classic rendition of the slippery and clownish mayor Larry Vaughn, and Lorraine Gary also does good work again as Ellen Brody.
A deserving subject of criticism for Jaws 2 has been Szwarc’s deviation from Spielberg’s approach of showing very little of the shark in the early portions of the film to build anticipation. His perspective was that, basically, the audience already knew what the shark looked like from the orginal, so there was no point in playing around. His major addition to the movie was the complex jet skii sequence, which is perhaps the most memorable scene in the film, though he plays all his cards at once by giving the viewer a full view of the shark so early.
In a glorious moment of over-the-top blockbuster filmmaking, the boat’s driver, after the jet skier is eaten, battles with the shark by pouring fuel into the water and attempting to ignite it with a flair gun. what follows is an absurdly large explosion, which is the first moment that those on the beach know anything is even going on. This incident then provides the shark, dubbed in production as “Bruce Two,” his signature look of having half his face burnt. This was intended to give the shark a more rugged and menacing look, but it ultimately just looks cartoonish and fake.
Also similar to the first film, the second half of Jaws 2 is set largely at sea when Brody’s sons go sailing with some friends, and Brody sets out to rescue them. This section offers some sense of adventure, though it’s a far cry from the action aboard the Orca in the original. Brody also kills this shark in similarly memorable fashion, holding out a large electrical cable as the shark plows out of the water, sinks its teeth in, and flames out spectacularly. It’s all rather ridiculous, but when it comes to creature features and Jaws sequels, you can do a lot worse than Jaws 2.