Like most action movies, “The Meg” begins with its tough-guy hero (who is the best of the best at what he does) performing a mission that goes awry, causing him to blame himself, quit the business, and feel haunted. Then it’s a few years later and we’re introduced to the scenario that will require Mr. Quitter’s expertise, for which he must be stoically dragged out of alcoholic retirement. “The Meg” lays it on extra-thick. Not only is he the ONLY person who can rescue the trapped divers, but the team he’s rescuing is led by HIS EX-WIFE!
“The Meg” also features a giant shark, eventually, but don’t hold your breath. Mostly it’s about deep-sea diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) trying to redeem himself. He’s summoned to an undersea lab 200 miles off the coast of Shanghai, where prickly billionaire Morris (Rainn Wilson) is funding research to the Mariana Trench, testing a theory that the ocean “floor” is actually a layer of hydrogen or something, with more water beneath it. This theory has proven correct, but the submarine capsule exploring it got its power knocked out by a mysterious giant creature and is now stuck in the ocean’s basement, the crew running out of air.
Then it’s disaster-movie tropes for a while, including a self-sacrificing death by the only character who mentioned having a spouse back home. The rescue mission is accomplished, but wouldn’t you know it, the mysterious giant creature that almost killed them down there uses the opportunity to escape up into the regular ocean (where you’d think it couldn’t survive, being accustomed to cold water and no sunlight, but whatever). This creature is Megalodon, a 60-to-80-foot prehistoric shark long presumed extinct. It menaces the undersea lab for a while before destroying some ships, leading Jonas and a crew to take a boat out there, “Jaws”-style, to try to kill it. The boat crew includes the usual quirky mix of characters, including the obligatory panicky black guy (Page Kennedy) who says, “None of this was part of the job description!” and the gruff military doctor (Robert Taylor) who blames Jonas for what happened a few years ago and didn’t want him brought back for this job but is eventually forced to admit, “You might be a son of a bitch, but you’re sure as hell no coward!” Also the ex-wife (Jessica McNamee), a potential new love interest (Bingbing Li), and, why not, a little girl (Shuya Sophia Cai).
Directed by high-octane schlock maven Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), “The Meg” offers well-executed shark thrills in which the characters you’d expect to get eaten get eaten, but the downtime between those sequences is slow and serious. Most of the action, as you’ve surmised, is out in the deep sea — not nearly as fun a setting for shark shenanigans as the beaches. The movie isn’t campy or ridiculous enough to be entertaining for those reasons, though it feints in that direction occasionally (like when Jonas sings “Just Keep Swimming” from “Finding Nemo”). Do they not realize how many movies like this we’ve seen? Not just the giant shark, but the haunted hero, the ragtag crew, the rich jerk who doesn’t respect nature — all of it. We’ve been here before. The shark is sufficiently large, but if you want to make an impression, everything around it needs to be zippier, shorter, and crazier than this.
C+ (1 hr., 53 min.; )