The shark schlock comes at you hard, fast, and fun, as Jason Statham battles giant sharks with an international cast in the Deep Blue Sea remake you never knew you needed.
Why release The Meg two entire weeks after Shark Week is over? It’s a perfect fit – schlocky deep-sea mayhem, a grizzled Jason Statham stabbing sharks in the eye with spears, and all the marine pseudoscience than you can shake a sonar at. While most shark films embrace their inherent campiness for good (The Shallows) or ill (the cynical Sharknado franchise), The Meg dives headlong into the earnest cheese of its premise. Mission: Impossible – Fallout may be the thinking man’s summer blockbuster, but The Meg swims straight for your big, dumb lizard brain and succeeds mightily as a piece of turn-your-brain-off entertainment.
While most silly shark pictures take Jaws as their obvious inspiration (and The Meg is no exception), there are so many refreshing shades of Renny Harlin’s shlocky smart-shark movie Deep Blue Sea to be found. Set in the newly-minted underground research facility Mana One, The Meg follows a group of international scientists (Li Bingbing, Winston Chao, Ruby Rose, Cliff Curtis and others) and billionaire benefactor Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) making a bold new discovery in the ocean deep. You see, what we thought was the bottom of the Mariana Trench – the deepest place on Earth – was actually a barrier of cold water covering up a vast world of undiscovered marine life. This includes, you guessed it, a megalodon (an ancient shark long thought extinct), which quickly traps their expedition crew on the ocean floor.
Left with no option, the crew recruits ex-Marine diver Jonas Taylor (Statham), disillusioned after a previous encounter with the “Meg” that forced him to leave his old friends to die. Finding out that his ex-wife (of all people) is one of the trapped explorers, Taylor joins the Mana One crew to bust them out and deal with the Meg.
The plot is preposterous, but who cares? We’re here to see Statham punch sharks, and The Meg certainly delivers, at least indirectly. Earnest cheese is The Meg’s selling point, director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure) effortlessly calibrating the film’s tone to scare and tease in equal measure. His handling of the Meg itself is particularly admirable – it’s hard to make a shark movie in general, much less a giant shark movie, but Turteltaub manages some neat new tricks to make sharks scary again. Sure, most of them depend on the Meg being a 90-foot ninja in the water, sneaking up on people without them noticing, but it still gets you every time.
Of course, when The Meg goes full pulp, that’s where the movie shines. The Mana One crew cruise around in bubbly “glider” subs reminiscent of Thunderbirds, and Page Kennedy’s DJ makes for a fun throwback to the days when the black guy was the most self-aware character in a horror film. (If this is a Deep Blue Sea remake, he and Statham are absolutely the LL Cool J and Tom Jane analogues, respectively.)
The Meg doesn’t skimp on the grisly shark action either – of course, there’s the inevitable public shark attack, this time on the crowded beaches of Sanya Bay – a sea of unsuspecting Chinese morsels frolicking in inflatable bubbles and pastel-colored inner tubes, ripe for the popping. It’s a stellar scene, even if it exists a bit in isolation – it’s more of a standalone setpiece than part of the story. Still, in a genre where these types of scenes feel ubiquitous, the sheer upsizing of every element – the shark, its potential field of floating snacks – is teeth-gnashingly exciting.
Statham’s in fine form here (and I mean fine, if one scene featuring the fiftysomething’s glistening six-pack and V are any indicator), Taylor fitting effortlessly into the kind of cheesy tough guy persona he earnestly built up over the aughts (and successfully deconstructed in Spy). One minute, he’s spitting out tough-guy dialogue like “I’m gonna make this fucker bleed”; the next, he’ll nervously sing “Just Keep Swimming” from Finding Nemo to himself while hunting the shark.
Statham’s always had that admirable mix of action star and character actor about him, which makes him incredible here – he’s just as much at home stabbing sharks as he is palling around with Bingbing’s daughter Meiying (an adorable Shuya Sophia Cal). It’s so great to see him land a lead role that isn’t in some warmed-over mid-budget crime film released in January – he deserves so much better than that.
The supporting cast is more than game for all the schlock, though some take their jobs more seriously than others. Rose and Chao are real standouts, Rose becoming a wonderful signpost for deliciously dumb adventure pictures (see also: John Wick Chapter 2, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage) while Chao bridges the international cast together with calm authority. Even smaller players, like Masi Oka and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, get their moments in the sun; The Meg manages to infuse its diverse cast with enough personality that you actually care when they get chomped.
The Meg is a Chinese-American co-production, the latest in what is sure to be an increasing reliance on the Asian market to sell big budget movies, and the results are intriguing. There’s a distinct feeling that you’re watching an Asian film that happens to have a large American star and supporting cast. If Statham wasn’t getting in the way all the time, Bingbing’s assured marine scientist would be the star of the show. As the film market becomes more globalized, and Asia becomes bigger stakeholders in blockbuster movie production, it’ll be interesting to see how the balance of East-West stories and casts shift and change. Before long, America could be at the receiving end of big-budget movies headlined by A-list Chinese actors – which might be a welcome change.
Independent of those larger market factors, though, The Meg is just rad as all hell. When it comes to big, dumb, crowd-pleasing movies, Turteltaub’s creature feature nails that precarious balance of schlock and excitement you need for a full-on B-movie experience.
The Meg swims into theaters Friday, August 10th.