Notwithstanding its obvious similarities to a certain summer-of-’75 blockbuster about a great white shark, the new “Jaws”-on-steroids thriller “The Meg” – about a 75-foot shark – may remind you of a more recent, and entirely different, movie: “Skyscraper.”
Both films center on superlatives: the world’s tallest skyscraper; the world’s biggest shark. (In this case, it’s a living specimen of a prehistoric Megalodon, long thought to be extinct.) Both feature bald, or nearly hairless, action stars: the genial Dwayne Johnson in “Skyscraper”; a more brooding, stubble-headed Jason Statham in “The Meg.” And both are co-productions between Hollywood studios and Chinese-owned production companies, and so feature Chinese co-stars and Asian settings.
They are also both merely passable entertainments, if also too mediocre to justify their slightly longer-than-necessary running times. In other words, they’re not just examples of popcorn movies but, like popcorn itself, blandly satisfying yet forgettable.
Statham plays Jonas Taylor, a disgraced deep-sea-rescue expert who, as it is explained in a prologue, is still living down his decision to abandon several colleagues in the middle of a mission after their vessel was attacked by what Jonas claimed was a giant shark. As the action of the film gets underway, our hero is drowning his sorrows in Thailand, having been divorced by his wife (Jessica McNamee) and having gained a reputation as a crazy person.
What he’s really doing, though, is waiting for redemption, which arrives in the form of a request to save his ex and two of her marine biologist colleagues from a submersible research vessel that has become disabled while exploring a previously unknown section of the seabed: a trench hidden beneath a thermocline, or cloudlike layer of super-chilled water. But what follows Jonas and the rescued scientists to the surface – via the hole they have just punctured in the cold water – is the mother of marine monsters.
When Jonas gets back to the base, he discovers that he has brought with him a sea creature that threatens the lives of the crew, played by a supporting cast of mostly nobodies, and a nearby beachside resort filled with extras. (Hey, action movies are expensive. That money that gets poured into special effects? It comes out of payroll.)
One of the more familiar faces is Rainn Wilson, who serves a dual purpose as the cynical, money-grubbing billionaire who has financed the science station on which much of the action is set: comic relief and, later, someone to root against when the shark starts looking for human chum.
Directed by Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”), from a screenplay adapted from Steve Alten’s 1997 book, “The Meg” takes its sweet time getting going, and doesn’t really start delivering on the expected thrills and chills until a scene in which Jonas, tethered by cable to a ship, dives into the ocean – with, inexplicably, no shark cage – to shoot a tracking device into the fin of the titular beastie. After the shark gets mad, and starts pursuing him, he becomes a piece of de facto bait, being reeled in as the Megalodon’s fin gets closer and closer.
What follows is a series of increasingly close calls, intercut with the aforementioned comedy – a little too much of that, if you ask me – and scenes centering on the budding romance between Jonas and a female scientist, played by Chinese actress Bingbing Li. Li’s apparent discomfort with her English dialogue lends her character an awkward stiffness (but then again, most of the characters are cardboard, making it hard to care who gets eaten and who doesn’t).
Unlike his action-movie rival Johnson, Statham does not have the charisma to carry this film. He gets the job done all right, but makes it feel more like work than play.
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