Sunday 22 August 2010

Something fishy: "Piranha"

In a year where James Cameron's Avatar set new technical and financial benchmarks for the movies, it seems somewhat perverse we should find ourselves looking back to the franchise that gave the young Cameron his first directing gig, with the sequel (1981's Piranha II: The Spawning) to a low-budget, Roger Corman-sponsored Jaws rip-off (the, ahem, "original" 1979 Piranha, written by John Sayles and directed by Joe Dante) - but then the new 3D format is nothing, in the main, if not a throwback to the gimmickry and hucksterism of old. Perhaps we might just be thankful this assignment landed in the hands of Alexandre Aja, the canny French remake specialist who's proved capable of a certain garish flair when the occasion has called for it.

Piranha 2010 sets out its stall with the pointed slaughter of a guest star before the opening credits, then settles into the rhythms of countless creature features before it. A small town is beset by toothy vermin trying to eat their way up the food chain, and it's down to a motley crew - here, sheriff Elisabeth Shue, deputy Ving Rhames, seismologist Adam Scott, plus a demographically representative teen (Steven R. McQueen, presumably cast for his name) - to restore both normality and our faith in the family unit. The one non-stereoscopic novelty is that the remake takes place during the increasingly commercialised spring break vacation, which affords endless gratuitous booty shots, a role for Jerry O'Connell as a Joe Francis-like porn producer you really can't wait to see chewed up, and an extended showcase for Kelly Brook (an actress surely built for 3D, if not perhaps acting) as a walking, talking bosom.

This latter aside, there's a surprising amount of padding in Piranha's 85 minutes, and you don't have to dive too far below the surface layer of irony to butt your head upon a bedrock of give-the-morons-what-they-want cynicism. The first half highlight - guaranteed to shift a few DVDs, and induce a squint in a considerable percentage of the watching male population - is Brook's nude underwater ballet with porn star Riley Steele to the accompaniment of Delibes' "The Flower Duet", which presumably counts as tasteful in Aja's eyes, but doesn't seem all that far removed from the softcore tripe O'Connell's sleaze merchant is serving up. Elsewhere, another leering Eli Roth cameo and the misappropriation of Scott's wry timing as a cut-price Tom Cruise hardly suggests a keen intelligence at work.

Oddly, though, whenever Piranha can tear itself away from the Brook decolletage - and it must have been tough, I know - it perks up. The film's underwater diving sequences bring back fond memories of The Descent: with its 3D effects mostly blah (unless you have a particular yen to watch a movie throwing up or belching severed penises in your face), one atypically subtle moment finds a piranha embryo rearing up in a diver's wake. Christopher Lloyd has a funny bit as a frantic fish expert, and I liked Rhames' last-reel deployment of a hand-held propeller to turn the ocean into the bloodiest of bouillabaisses. As brain-in-reverse Friday night trash, this Piranha will just about do, but it's a pity a director who once made a Futurist horror movie (1999's Furia) and whose first English-language venture (2006's The Hills Have Eyes remake) was so critical of U.S. thinking should have been seduced by a juicy paycheque and acres of sunkissed flesh into churning out something so obviously intended as beady-eyed, sharp-toothed product.

Piranha is on general release.

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