“Fast and Furious” fame can’t keep Jason Statham out of the water. Statham, a living action figure, truly became a star in the U.S. after joining the long-running car chase franchise. And his leading role in this weekend’s new blockbuster “The Meg,” is a testament to his Hollywood bonafides. But Statham first cut his teeth on bad 1970s knockoff action films, leaning into the role of a gravelly voiced, working-class version of Charles Bronson. “The Meg” is essentially a 21st-century version of “Jaws,” with all the bells and whistles of modern-day movie magic. But there’s still something undeniably retro about it — at the end of the day, no one really matters except Statham, the shark and his poison-tipped harpoon gun.
The plot is simple. Man messes with nature in search of profit, nature messes back by eating man. Unlike the Florida locale of the original “Jaws,” this films is set off the coast of China. (Not coincidentally, China is also becoming the target demographic for a film like this, as are most of these mediocre disaster movies that have been cropping up recently. See also: Dwayne “Mr. The Rock” Johnson’s unnecessary "Die Hard" reboot "Skyscraper," which came out last month.) The shark is bigger, too — Jaws is tiny next to the prehistoric Megalodon that Statham and co. are up against. (The boats are also bigger, but predictably they’re still not big enough.)
Everyone winds up in the water before it’s all said and done, but the movie isn’t horror. Far too many characters survive for it to be labeled that. Even the dog lives. That doesn’t make it a bad movie, merely one aiming for “family friendly." The results are fairly forgettable.
But while the body count may be weak, the special effects are impressive. Massive amounts of CGI went into this film, and it shows. Viewers who have ever indulged in the Discovery Channel or “Blue Planet” will likely enjoy the beginning of the film, which imagines what life was like in a part of the ocean completely cut off from the rest of the world for millions of years. The title shark is also quite impressive, as are all the medium-sized sharks people keep accidentally killing instead of it. The film even adds in a few extra disaster clichés, along with the thousands of panicked beachgoers, because why not.
This flashy underwater scene-setting can only do so much, though. It’s clear that studio executives believe Statham is now on the same level as action superstars like The Rock and Vin Diesel. In other words, they expect him to be able to carry the weight (or lack thereof) of the film entirely on his brawny British shoulders. He's the guy with the gun and everyone else is there to recite mostly clichéd lines during unnecessary faux-emotional plot points. It’s a compliment, although in some ways it feels outside his comfort zone.
Nearly all of Statham's early films were either actual remakes of bad disaster/action movies from the 1970s (“The Italian Job,” “Death Race,” “The Mechanic”) or they were films that fit into that genre. A great example is 2013’s “Parker,” which co-starred Jennifer Lopez. It's all about bank robbers and double-crossing and murder, but the movie only comes to life when Statham is in the middle of the action sequences.
“The Meg” is a movie exactly in this same mold, although instead of chasing bad guys (or good guys), he’s on the hunt for a monster. His co-star this time is Li Bingbing as Suyin. She has a kid, Meiying, played by Shuya Sophia Cai — the only character to manage to hold her own against Statham. There are extraneous plot bits with Suyin’s father Zhang (Winston Chao), and so forth, but none of it is very important. It doesn't matter if Bingbing acts her heart out or not — the audience is just waiting for Statham to get a harpoon gun in his hand again, anyway.
One would think at this point in his career, Statham would be beyond this sort of subpar, just-the-action-blockbusters. Obviously, Warner Brothers has high hopes for him. Although “The Meg” is vaguely unmemorable late summer fare, Statham was cast as a true-blue hero for once, not his usual criminal/hitman/mercenary anti-hero. His character, Jonas Taylor, comes out of a drunken self-imposed retirement because his ex-wife (Jessica McNamee) is in danger. When Morris, the billionaire funding the expedition (Rainn Wilson, having a ball playing against type), demands everyone stay and find a way to profit from the discovery from the Meg, Statham is there to shout him down. He even saves the dog.
But while achieving The Rock-level status must be good for his bottom line, Statham seems a little awkward in this sort of uncomplicated, good guy role — a round peg hammered down into a square hole. Statham never seems particularly happy pretending to play drunk, emotionally tortured, or shy loverboy. He wants what the audience wants — to face down the giant villain. Your typical Statham character would have walked aboard the deep sea exploration rig, shot Morris without blinking and told everyone to thank him later. In "The Meg," Statham's got to play by the rules, most of the time.
Did the world need a “Jaws” update? No, but it didn’t need a “Die Hard” update either, and that didn’t stop Dwayne Johnson from making one. Maybe next time they feel like combining something like “Jaws” with “Jurassic World,” they could get Spielberg to direct?
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.