"In Defense Of" is a biweekly look back at films that have been relegated to the dustbin of time - victims of critical thrashing, commercial failure, etc. - that attempts to sort through their perceived failures and bring their merits to light in an effort to conclude whether or not they deserve a better reputation.
The prospect of making a sequel is inherently a tricky thing, especially when it comes to attempting to follow up a film that became an instant classic overnight; something that resonated so deeply with people the world over to the point that their expectations for anything following in its footsteps would - understandably and rightfully - be high.
The best sequels build on the foundation laid down by their predecessors, expanding upon the story in a natural way and offering something new in the process without completely breaking away from what worked so well in the first place. Take iconic sequels like The Godfather: Part II, The Empire Strikes Back, or Terminator 2: Judgment Day, for instance, all films frequently considered to be even better than the ones they followed for digging deeper, taking more risks, and so on, but never forgetting the fundamental appeal that allowed them to exist in the first place; great films on their own, sure, but - even better - perfect companions to their predecessors, with a natural flow that just works.
But for every rare, quality sequel like those, of course, there are countless sequels that are churned out simply to capitalize on a brand, often made by people who, for one reason or another, seem to be out of touch with what worked so well the first time around, failing to understand that, in many cases, leaving audiences wanting more is better than actually giving them more. Pumping out "bigger" sequels simply for the sake of doing so and not for the sake of genuine story can rob characters and ideas and themes of their initial strength. It's how a character like Freddy Krueger can go from being a terrifying figure to a wisecracking jokester, or how the antics of Captain Jack Sparrow can go from refreshing to exhausting.
As new writers or directors or executives get involved in turning a single film into a franchise, everyone wants to put their stamp on it, often with misguided ideas about what would be cool rather than what would be smart. And thinking like that means an iconic piece of cinema like Steven Spielberg's Jaws gets linked forever to sequels like Jaws 3D and Jaws: The Revenge, two films that attempted to up the ante in a way no audience in the world truly wanted, in the process spitting in the face of what made Jaws work - from its great characters to its lived-in world to its ability to tap into the genuine, primal fear of what lurks in the unknown - all for the sake of cashing in on a fad and the goodwill of the original film.
And then there's a sequel like Jaws 2, which came out just three years after its predecessor. On the surface, it truly is wholly unnecessary - absolutely no one needed it. Jaws was a self-contained story, and one that ended on a perfect, conclusive note, and a solid example of my previously-mentioned idea of leaving the audience wanting more simply because the film was so good that who wouldn't want to spend more time with it?
For Universal, getting Jaws 2 off the ground to capitalize on their blockbuster film was inevitable, though, and despite a troubled production - without Spielberg on board, a new director was hired for the film only to be fired late in the game, for instance - it eventually arrived in 1978 under the direction of Jeannot Szwarc, going on to make a big splash at the box office even if its own success never replicated that of the summer of 1975.
Had the third and fourth films never happened, perhaps the first sequel would be much more well-regarded in the modern day. As it stands, though, the absolutely dismal failure - especially creatively - of the two films that would follow led to the idea of the "Jaws sequel" being a running joke; a stigma about bad, gratuitous sequels in general that has since stretched out to include Jaws 2 by default, dragging it down with its successors despite its merits.
Now, Jaws 2 isn't perfect. Spielberg's touch is missing and it's evident. The absence of Robert Shaw's Quint and Richard Dreyfuss' Hooper is felt, especially the latter considering Hooper survived the first film. And even the fundamental conflict between Brody and the town is recycled, as Brody's belief that another shark has returned to the waters of Amity sees him squaring off, once again, against a disbelieving Mayor Vaughn, among others.
However, where the two other sequels failed in trying to go bigger, as it were, Jaws 2 at least attempts to feel like a natural extension of the first film. Though Spielberg's little moments of character work aren't really present in the sequel - think of the brief, quiet scene between Brody and Sean in the first film where the latter mimics the actions of the exhausted former at the dinner table and how it went a long way in making these characters feel real - Swarcz at least does his best to emulate Spielberg's overall visual style, as Amity itself and scenes on the water look and feel exactly as they did before.
Beyond that, the new shark's mere existence isn't glossed over, and though it is, of course, convenient for the sequel, it's at least addressed within the film by Brody, who acknowledges the issue by questioning whether the death of the original shark is what attracted this one in the first place (compared to the shark in The Revenge, which actually somehow had it out for the Brody family). And speaking of Brody, without Hooper and Quint around, Roy Scheider really has to carry most of the film by himself, and does an admirable job in adding layers to the character that feel earned in a story that essentially shoehorned him and Amity in for the sake of familiarity, with the character's PTSD following the events of the first film informing - and justifying - every action he takes throughout the film, such as in the excellent scene during which he fires off his gun at the water in the middle of a crowded beach, overreacting to a school of fish he's mistaken as the shark.
And good thing Scheider is so entertaining to watch, too, because the other half of the film involves a fleet of teens - including Brody's own sons, Mike and Sean - being stalked by the shark. On one hand, the kids are relatively likable, simply out to have fun and finding themselves in terrible circumstances in comparison to, say, the typical group of people in horror films who continue to "ask for it," so to speak, by choosing to stay (in a cabin, at a camp, whatever) even when evidence is mounting that something is wrong. On the other hand, though, with so many of them, there's no time to get to really know any of them individually, even Mike and Sean, which robs the handful of deaths and overall stakes of their impact simply because the characters themselves are so clearly fodder, even if the shark's kills are visually effective.
The shark itself is not presented in the same way as the outright monsters of the next two films, yet it's also not quite the predator of the first film, either. Instead, it gives off somewhat of a serial killer vibe thanks, in part, to the fact that it's hunting a group of terrified teens throughout a large chunk of the film, just like any number of famous film slashers that went on to grace the big screen in the years that followed. Still, though, it works, and even if we as an audience get to see the shark itself more than we did the first time around, Swarcz still frequently adheres to the less-is-more approach, keeping the beast relatively off-screen and lending it an air of unpredictability about when it will show up next and what it will do.
The film also has a handful of ridiculous moments, some that work, some that don't. The most egregious, undoubtedly, occurs early on, when a speedboat is attacked by the shark and the female driver freaks out, hilariously dousing herself with gasoline only to set herself and the boat ablaze by firing a flare. In contrast, you have the climactic scene between Brody and the shark, which sees Brody on a raft beating an underwater cable with an oar to get the attention of the shark, who bites it and dies - and fries! - via electrocution. It toes the line of being over-the-top, but still manages to work thanks to the film having built up Brody as a man simply over having to go through this all yet again, earning such an otherwise ludicrous moment by having the conviction to go all out with it.
Jaws 2 also saw the return of the always-great John Williams, who builds off his score for the first film while supplementing it with some great additions, including the flighty theme for the teens. The Jaws theme is one of the most recognizable, iconic pieces of movie music ever, and that's what most people will singularly remember from the films, but the atmosphere and adventure of the first two films is really brought to life thanks to Williams even beyond when that theme resurfaces. There's always a magic spark that Williams brings to everything he's involved in, and even his presence for the first sequel helps give the film that extra bit of personality the subsequent sequels completely failed to acknowledge was important.
Lastly, the film deserves credit for its iconic tagline: "Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water." It's simple and effective, and one that - at least from my observation - people tend to associate with the first film for whatever reason despite the obvious sequel connotation. If anything, without this film, we wouldn't have it floating around in the pop culture lexicon, and that has to be worth something.
As I said, Jaws 2 isn't a perfect film. While some may argue that it doesn't take risks and feels, perhaps, too familiar as a result, in hindsight I feel that its attempt to respect and emulate the first film works in its favor, especially seeing where taking risks took the franchise in the years that followed. Not to mention, it features a shark taking down a helicopter and a man electrocuting said shark alive and never really misses a beat, which is kind of amazing.
It's an unnecessary film, sure, and one that does at times feel like it's treading familiar waters, but its biggest crime is simply being forever associated with the two travesties that followed. However, its genuine effort to connect with the first film coupled with Scheider's work here elevate it into something a bit more; never reaching the heights of the classic it followed, but also nowhere near deserving of being considered a truly bad sequel or film itself. It doesn't dilute the strength of the original film by existing, nor is it a slog to sit through, either alone or as a companion piece. It's the definition of a take-it-or-leave-it harmless sequel, but thanks to its own merits and ability to hold up as an enjoyable movie, I'll take the return trip to Amity any day.
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