There are two creatures seeking revenge in “Jaws: The Revenge,” the fourth episode in the fish-centric soap opera. One is Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary), whose life has been disrupted by one shark after another ever since the first “Jaws,” and who finally snaps when her son is killed by one at the beginning of this movie. The other vengeful being is the shark, who we are asked to believe is hunting down members of the Brody family specifically, even swimming from New England to the Bahamas to pursue them. If it immediately strikes you, as it should, that this is a very stupid idea for a movie, then you are one step ahead of the filmmakers, who were evidently perfectly satisfied with it.
“Jaws,” a masterpiece of suspense and fear-mongering, came out in 1975. It was followed by “Jaws II” in 1978 and by “Jaws 3-D” (in 3-D!) in 1983. Then they followed the old wives’ tale about waiting four years after eating before you make a crappy sequel, and in 1987 came the fourth and worst entry, a film whose single greatest contribution to our culture is that it popularized (really!) the now-generic movie tagline “This time it’s personal.”
“Jaws: The Revenge” pretends that “Jaws 3-D” never happened. (This is something “Jaws: The Revenge” and I have in common.) It is Christmastime on Amity Island, and the widow Ellen Brody is enjoying the season with her grown son, Sean (Mitchell Anderson), a smarmy, obnoxious man who works for the local sheriff’s department. After only a few minutes of enduring Sean Brody’s smugness, I thought, “I hope he gets eaten by the shark first.” And then what do you know, he does! He’s out on a boat on official police business when, after no suspense whatsoever, a shark leaps out of the water and bites his arm off. Then the shark basically chomps through the boat and eats the rest of him.
Pretending “Jaws 3-D” doesn’t exist? Killing off the most annoying character almost immediately? You sure know how to get on my good side, movie!
Oh, but it is short-lived. It seems Ellen Brody has been holding the ten, jack, queen, and king of crazy, and Sean’s death has dealt her the ace she needed for a crazy straight flush. She blames Sean’s death on the shark, which is fair, since the shark ate him. Even the shark would cop to that. But she also blames her husband’s death on the shark. That would be Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider in the first two films, a character who was alive and well the last time we saw him. Ellen says a shark killed him. When it’s pointed out that he actually died of a heart attack, she says it was FEAR of the shark that got him.
So now we’re left to wonder: Did he have another run-in with a shark between films, an experience so terrifying it frightened him to death? Or did he have a heart attack in the living room while watching TV one night and his wife blames a shark because she’s crazy? Does Ellen Brody feel the same way about Jaws that Mel Gibson feels about Jews?
Sean’s brother, Michael (Lance Guest), a marine biologist, comes home to Amity for the funeral and to help pick up bits of Sean from the shoreline. He brings his wife, Carla (Karen Young), and their aggressively cute 5-year-old daughter, Thea (Judith Barsi), with him. Michael tells Ellen she should go with them back to the Bahamas, where he has a job studying sea snails. Ellen is reluctant at first, I guess because she hates to leave Amity Island, a place that has brought her nothing but misery and grief, but she agrees soon enough and the Brodys are on their way!
In Nassau, Ellen immediately starts harping on the shark thing again. She’s afraid of the water and wants everyone else to be, too. She keeps having flashbacks of Sean’s death, which is impressive, considering she wasn’t there when it happened. (She also wasn’t there when her husband killed the shark in the first movie, but she keeps flashing back to that, too.) Michael assures her that the Caribbean water is too warm for sharks (which is untrue, by the way), but she’s not convinced (maybe because she reads Wikipedia, too). She’s certain “the shark” is after her family. I don’t know what she means by this, because “the shark” gets killed at the end of each “Jaws” film. It’s not the same one every time. Has no one explained this to her? Perhaps she means sharks in general are after the Brodys. Maybe she thinks the Brodys and the sharks are like the Sunnis and the Shiites. I don’t know. At any rate, the only person she can confide in is her new friend Hoagie, a local gambler and airplane pilot played by Michael Caine, who at this point in his career had decided to appear in any movie, no matter how bad, as long as the catering truck had corndogs.
Meanwhile, Michael and his wife, who is an artist working on a sculpture for a public exhibit, occasionally have marital spats. These spats figure into the plot of the film in no way whatsoever. Weirdly, Michael and Carla also have sex a lot, more than you’d think a husband and wife who hate each other would have, and certainly more than needs to be included in a movie about shark attacks. One of their spats has to do with Michael forgetting to take the garbage out. “It’s the third time this month!” Carla says accusingly. That’s where Michael ought to have said, “Well, I guess I’ve been a little preoccupied lately, considering A SHARK ATE MY BROTHER, YOU HATEFUL COW!” Seriously, it’s been like a week since the funeral. What kind of trauma does a guy have to endure to get a little leeway around here?
During the many happy hours that he is away from his wife, Michael is in the company of a fellow scientist named Jake (Mario Van Peebles), whose Jamaican accent comes and goes with the tide and who I believe was the inspiration for Sebastian the crab in “The Little Mermaid.” The two are out looking at sea snails one day when a shark shows up and bites their boat. It is the same shark that ate Sean, though Michael has no way of knowing this, and even if he did know he wouldn’t believe it, since it happened 3,000 miles away and only about a week ago and it would take a shark of this size at least a month to cover that kind of distance. Anyway, he and Jake want to study the shark, not chase it away, so he’s like, “Don’t tell Mom we saw a shark! For reals! She will be so pissed!” Then they put a tracking device on the shark, an act that involves Michael almost getting eaten, but eh, whatever.
While this is happening, Ellen is having a psychic event. She seems to sense that the shark is near. She’s with Hoagie somewhere, enjoying the local color, and suddenly she goes all stiff, like Christopher Walken having a vision in “The Dead Zone.” If Ellen has a psychic connection with the shark, that might explain how she’s able to keep having flashbacks to things she didn’t witness. I’m glad the movie tossed that detail in there, or else I would totally be making fun of it for the flashback thing.
Then one day it’s a lovely afternoon at the beach, and little Thea is with a bunch of other people on a boat near the shore, when suddenly the shark shows up and eats a lady. No hello, no DUN-dun-DUN-dun music, no nothing. Just wham, bam, you were delicious ma’am. Everyone on the beach witnesses it, and Ellen is horrified but also kind of glad because this means she was RIGHT. As the old saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean a shark isn’t out to get you! So SUCK IT, MICHAEL!!
Oh, and Michael is in REALLY BIG TROUBLE when Ellen and Carla find out that he knew the shark was in town and could have eaten little Thea. “You knew there was a shark somewhere in the ocean and you didn’t tell us?!!” is the gist of their complaint against him.
That’s when Ellen becomes Action Grandma! Clad in long, boxy sweaters from the Dorothy Zbornak collection, and with a face that lends credence to the folk belief that married couples start to resemble one another after a while — I’m saying she looks like Roy Scheider — Ellen Brody commandeers a boat and goes off in search of the shark. She doesn’t have weapons or a plan of any kind; maybe she just wants to find the shark and scold it. Whatever the case, she is quickly marooned and in need of rescue. Hoagie, Michael, and Jamaican Jake fly out in Hoagie’s plane, which lands in the water and is attacked by the shark. So far in this film, the shark has demonstrated a much greater interest in eating inanimate objects than humans.
Michael and Jake’s plan is to make the shark swallow a device they’ve rigged up that will send electromagnetic signals and drive the beast crazy. They manage to get the device into the shark’s mouth; unfortunately, this requires Jake getting into the shark’s mouth, too. But hey, like it says in the Bible, you gotta kill a few secondary characters to make an omelet. The electromagnetic impulses do indeed torment the shark, causing it to leap out of the water and roar in pain, an impressive feat for a creature with no lungs or vocal cords. Of course, all that’s really been accomplished here, besides killing the Jamaican, is that they’ve made the shark angry and insane. I submit that this is not really a step in the right direction.
Luckily, the shark has already broken off a piece of the boat’s mast, leaving a sharp, pointy end, and the people manage to get the shark to impale itself upon it, whereupon it (the shark) explodes.
Wait, what? Yes, the shark explodes. I believe we are supposed to infer that the electromagnetic-signal-sending device detonated when the shark’s flesh was pierced, but no one ever says this. It also doesn’t make any sense, though not making any sense has not been a deterrent for the film up to this point, so I don’t know why it should start mattering now. Oh, and Jake turns out to be alive after all! Which also doesn’t make any sense!
All of this no-sense-making is the result of heavy tinkering on the part of the filmmakers, who altered the ending in various ways after test screenings. The theatrical version, which was also shown on cable for many years, had the shark dying from impalement alone. I don’t know when the explosion was added. It’s on the DVD, and we watched it over and over again, frame by frame, like the Zapruder film, trying to determine just what the movie wanted us to believe had caused the shark’s detonation. The question is unanswerable. It just happens. If David Lynch had directed this ending, people would call it brilliant.
What’s strange about “Jaws: The Revenge” is that while every scene set on dry land is boring, every scene involving the shark is also boring. You wouldn’t think a movie about a vengeful, man-eating shark could be dull, but there you go. That’s Hollywood for you, always breaking new ground.