Saturday, January 22, 2011

Piranha (2010)

Director: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Elisabeth Shue, Steven R. McQueen, Jessica Szohr, Adam Scott, Jerry O'Connell, Ving Rhames, , Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfuss, Kelly Brook
Running Time: 90 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Despite seeing Piranha 3D in 2D, I'd say just the combination of Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd and killer piranhas on Spring Break still guaranteed at least a reasonably good time regardless of the format. And that's pretty much what we get. Director Alexandre Aja's remake of Roger Corman's 1978 cult classic Piranha is a throwback to the the 70's and 80's when low-budget exploitation horror movies were actually allowed to have a sense of humor and revel in their own awfulness, knowing how to have fun and let the audience in on it too. Any complaints this movie was shoddily converted to 3D post-production and the technology being misused for bargain basement horror-comedy would be missing the point. This is exactly the kind of flick that would be shown in crappy 3D at the dingiest drive-in in summer 1985 so it almost seems appropriate it be released in that same format today. While watching I could imagine well enough how those 3D scenes would have played (even if in some cases I didn't want to), but as it stands, this is fun, mindless entertainment that accomplishes what's needed.

It's Spring Break at Lake Victoria, which means 18-year-old Jake (Steven R. McQueen) is once again asked by his mom, Sheriff Julie Forrester (Elisabeth Shue), to watch his little sister and brother while everyone else has the time of their lives, including longtime crush, Kelly (Jessica Szohr). But the arrival of adult filmmaker Derrick Jones (Jerry O' Connell) provides him the opportunity to hit the seas with Kelly while serving as "location scout" for Derrick's latest Wild Wild Girls video starring actresses Danni (Kelly Brook) and Crystal (Riley Steele), and any other scantily clad and/or topless women  available. Meanwhile Julie and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames), investigate a mysterious death linked to a school of mutant piranhas that emerged from the floor of the lake. With help from seismologist Novak (Adam Scott) and the town's eccentric marine biologist (Christopher Lloyd), they have to contain the piranhas before they feast on all the partying co-eds.

The 3D release was clearly a profit-driven decision (as it always is), but Piranha seemed to come under fire from many who saw it theatrically for its poor post-production conversion to the format. It could be a blessing in disguise that I skipped it in theaters and can only comment on the decision to do that, rather than its results. This is a cheesy, low-budget schlock fest so the laughable special effects would have probably looked even worse and less clear on the big screen. But again, that's beside the point because you see a movie like this for a good time and it definitely delivers in that respect. It takes a little while to get going but once it does it really gets going, culminating in a relentlessly brutal 15-minute sequence of graphic, blood-soaked mayhem when the hungry piranhas finally strike on unsuspecting tourists. This is a departure from most recent horror outings in that it actually has a sense of humor that reminded me more of the 80's Friday the 13th entries. Those were awful but loads of fun, as is this. The lost art of excessively pointless nudity is resurrected by Aja, who stages a display of girl-on-girl underwater action set to classical music, maybe in an attempt to make up for the projectile vomiting and flying limbs.

The most thrilling part of the movie just might be the inspired casting, most specifically the involvement of certain actors who still would have fit right in if this came out a couple of decades earlier. It's no surprise that Elisabeth Shue seems completely in her element, tough and believable, as the kick-ass sheriff and overprotective mom. Just seeing the criminally underrated Shue given the opportunity to carry something like this again made the movie for me and she doesn't disappoint, stepping up to deliver in a role much more physically demanding than you'd imagine. The only time the movie seems to suffer slightly is when she isn't on screen, making me wonder if it would have been a better idea to focus primarily on her rather than everyone else, who are fine, just not nearly as interesting. As Jake, Steven R. McQueen (yep, it's his grandson) starts the film as the traditional wimpy kid who evolves into a hero through the experience and sells it well while Gossip Girl's Jessica Szohr becomes the third cast member of that series to have a successful big screen showing in 2010, naturally charismatic and likable as the perfect girl-next-door. Somehow Jerry O' Connell finds a way to actually overplay a sleazy porn producer who's not so loosely based on Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis. That even he would probably tell O'Connell to tone it down should give you an idea just how over-the-top he goes but I can't say it doesn't fit the material, as grating as he sometimes is. We know that character will eventually get his, and when he does, that punishment ends up disgustingly fitting the crime. And if that's not enough we get a Back To The Future reunion of sorts as Christopher Lloyd joins Shue, essentially plays a variation on Doc Brown while Richard Dreyfuss briefly reprises his legendary Jaws character in a memorable cameo. Eli Roth also appears as the judge of a wet t-Shirt contest and you could probably guess what happens to him.

You probably have to go back to 1997's ridiculously entertaining Anaconda to find a horror movie as fully aware of just how dumb and cheesy it is, so that alone is worth high praise. It's one of those rare guilty pleasures you don't feel the slightest bit guilty about since the phrase "It Is What It Is" couldn't possibly be more applicable than here. The piranhas do need to be bigger and more menacing, so it's a relief when the film implies its forthcoming sequel, cleverly titled Piranha 3DD, will do something about that and has the potential to be even crazier than this. Having not seen the 1978 original, I can't say how this stacks up against it, but we desperately need more fun, campy garbage like this as opposed to the dreary horror films we're currently getting. Even without the supposed benefit of 3D and viewed at home in the dead of winter, Piranha's dedication in going back to basics proves to be a welcome relief.

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