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RED WATER (2003)
“Freshwater shark attacks are extremely rare. This specimen is probably headed out to sea by now. I expect that the Atchafalaya River is as safe as a swimming-pool!”
Director: Charles Robert Carner
Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips, Kristy Swanson, Rob Boltin, Gideon Emery, Langley Kirkwood, Coolio, Jaimz Woolvett, Dennis Haskins, Charles Dumas, Masha K. Tumisho, Nicholas Andrews, Clive Scott
Screenplay: J.D. Feigelson and Chris Mack
Synopsis: On the Atchafalaya River, Louisiana, the young Andre Gautreaux (Nicholas Andrews) and his grandfather (Clive Scott) head for the Black Cove to do some fishing. To their astonishment, the two find an oil-rig operating there, and turn back down the river. The workers on the rig set off an underwater explosion. Beneath the waters, a large bull shark is slightly injured by the blast, and leaves the isolated area. At Lake Verret, two teenage girls swim a race to a floating platform. One of them screams hysterically as a fin breaks the surface. Panicked swimmers stampede for land, while the two girls head desperately for the platform. One of them makes it – and one of them does not…. John Sanders (Lou Diamond Phillips), the owner of a charter fishing-boat, learns from his bank that if he misses one more loan payment, his boat will be repossessed. Diver Brett Vanrooyen (Langley Kirkwood) and criminal associate Ice (Coolio) are sent after the newly-released Jerry Cullen (Jaimz Woolvett), who five years earlier hid $3 million in drug money in the Atchafalaya River before being arrested. Meanwhile, the Gautreaux’ fishing expedition is not going well. As Grandpa ponders the lack of fish, a violent pull on his line tips him into the water. The embarrassed fisherman struggles back to his boat – only to vanish in an eruption of blood. Some time later, a small boat nudges John Sanders’ vessel, the “Bitter End”. The outside of the bateau is splashed with blood; inside, a boy lies almost catatonic. Sheriff Dale Landry (Dennis Haskins) has the boy taken care of, then tells John that he is headed to Lake Verret to investigate a reported shark attack. John is incredulous, but his right-hand man, Emery Broussard (Rob Boltin), insists that that a bull shark could be responsible. As the sheriff pulls away, John sees to his dismay that he has another visitor: his ex-wife, Dr Kelli Raymond (Kristy Swanson). With Kelli is Gene Bradley (Gideon Emery), an executive at Discovery Petroleum, the company for which she works as an environmental biologist – and for which John used to work as a driller. John learns that the company believes that there is a massive oil deposit under the Black Cove and that, in spite of the area’s wildlife refuge status, it has managed to obtain a drilling lease. Kelli adds that the operation has hit trouble, and the company needs John back doing his previous job; a job he quit after a fatal blowout for which he still holds himself responsible. When Kelli tries to assure him that the accident was not his fault, John angrily orders her off his boat. Further down the marina, Jerry Cullen is preparing to cast off when he is jumped by Brett and Ice, who “persuade” him to take them to the missing money. Later that night, John relates his history to Emery, who advises him to take the second chance that he has been offered – which John finally, reluctantly, decides to do. The “Bitter End” encounters Sheriff Landry, who tells John that there have now been two fatalities, that a large bounty has been placed on the shark, and that the area upriver has been closed. John argues that the pattern of attacks suggests that the shark is headed downriver, and Landry agrees to let him pass. On a nearby boat, one of those hunting the shark tries out his harpoon equipment. The projectile cuts through the water, missing the unseen bull shark by inches. Having been headed towards the Gulf, the animal turns and swims back upriver….
Comments: I would like to know, very much like to know, just what Public Relations firm Carcharhinus leucas employs in order to keep its profile so enduringly low. Here’s a test: when discussing sharks with your average specimen of Homo sapiens, say great white or tiger or mako; you’ll probably get a reaction. Conversely, say bull shark (and believe me, I say “bull shark” a lot: it’s one of my favourite mixed-company pseudo-obscenities), and generally all you’ll get is a blank look.
And yet the bull shark is probably the species of shark responsible for the greatest number of attacks upon humans; certainly, a large proportion of attacks credited (is that the right word?) to the great white are actually carried out by the bull. There is no great mystery about the frequency of these human-shark encounters: the bull shark is simply, by far, the species most likely to be where we are. Not only do these animals inhabit those shallow coastal waters favoured for human recreation, but alone of their kind, they have the ability to osmoregulate – meaning that they can survive for extended periods in fresh water….
The real deal.
I’ve read reviews of Red Water that scoffed at the notion of a shark inhabiting the Louisiana bayou. Not only can they do so, they do do so: specimens have been netted in the very area in which this film is set. Bull sharks have been found as far up the Mississippi as Illinois – and almost twice that distance up the Amazon. They swarm in the Ganges, for reasons I won’t get into here. All around Australia, the river systems are full of them, as are the man-made canals around the Gold Coast. Towards the end of last year, a racehorse exercising in the Brisbane River was pulled under by a bull shark; it survived, but it wasn’t feeling so racy afterwards. There are bull sharks in St Lucia Lake in South Africa, which is known for its high salt concentration. And there are bull sharks in the wholly freshwater Lake Nicaragua. These apparently isolated specimens were at one time considered to be a separate sub-species – until a tagging experiment demonstrated that the damn things could migrate like salmon. Bull sharks are complex, fascinating, dangerous animals – and yet somehow they fail to grip the human imagination, continue to fly under the human radar. Why is that? Is it just that they don’t have the – the glamour of their more notorious (and maligned) cousins? Is it that their name, “bull shark”, is, well, kind of boring? Or is it that….that no-one has ever made a film about them…?
I’ve got to be honest about this: I was so pleased that at long last, someone had finally recognised the menace value of the bull shark, that I came to Red Water very much predisposed in its favour, and fully determined to cut this otherwise unpromising made-for-TV entry in the killer shark genre as much slack as I possibly could.
But of course, when I start a review by announcing that I was pre-determined to cut a film plenty of slack, that does rather imply that the film was in need of the cutting – n’est-ce pas?
Red Water: it's twice as good as Jaws!
The killer shark film, like many other things in life, exists on a bell curve. As is certainly not the case with every film genre, there has been one truly great shark film; it would probably be unrealistic of us ever to expect another one. For the rest, there have been a couple of good shark films, and a few – Shark Zone, for instance – that can make genuine B-Movie buffs fall to their knees and weep tears of gratitude. The bulk of them, alas, are simply mediocre – and in spite of my desire to do otherwise, it is into this category that I must consign Red Water. The problem is not merely that the film is mediocre, but rather that it is mediocre in a really exasperating way. It keeps looking like it’s about to do something a bit better, something a bit different; but every time one of these moments crops up, the film, as if frightened by its own audacity, immediately retreats into cliché. Still, there are certainly many worse killer shark films out there than Red Water; and in the spirit with which I undertook this review, I will first highlight what I did like about it.
One of Red Water’s main strengths is its setting. Transplanting a killer shark story into the rivers and bayous of Louisiana lends a nice degree of unfamiliarity to the action, and there is a lot of rather lovely scenic footage right throughout the film, which has the virtue of having being shot almost entirely on location. (Not, however, in Louisiana. Bizarrely, Red Water was shot in South Africa – a production decision that I’m sure made perfect sense to the Sony executives while they were polishing off that third bottle.)
The shark effects themselves are, as always, a mixed bag. The film is notable for its minimal use of stock footage, with which most of these recent low-budget outings have padded out their effects. (Not a problem in and of itself, perhaps – except for the tendency to use footage of the wrong species!!) The CGI scenes, with perhaps one exception, are pretty dire; and the very first shot of the shark is one of the worst in the film. However, these effects are supplemented by the use of a free-swimming animatronic shark that is actually reasonably good. (Although its snout isn’t the correct shape; for some reason, they never seem to get that right.) This allows for both interaction between the shark and the cast (although the scene in which John Sanders gets grabbed and towed by his air-tank is pretty damn silly) and for lots of close-up glide-past-the-camera moments; while, at least when seen from above the water, the creature is both menacing and graceful.
Mofam, Louisiana, that is. Not Mofam, South Africa.
Then, too, although it’s a fair size, the shark isn’t outrageously big; certainly not as comically over-sized as, say, the sharks in the Jaws sequels came to be. (Real bull sharks can get up to about twelve feet, but generally don’t.) One nice detail is that the first attack scene features the victim being pushed vertically out of the water, something that does actually happen in bull shark attacks; although whether this was intended to be a point of accuracy or merely a shock moment is moot. The fact that the film’s action is supposed to be in the bayou helps its execution, since the murky waters both add some suspense to the attack scenes, and – more importantly – disguise the deficiencies of the model; although they do finally succumb to temptation and give us far too good a look at it.
One weird thing here is the shark’s obsession with metal objects. Apart from deliberately slamming its head into whatever wooden or metal structure it comes across, it repeatedly chooses metal over flesh, deliberately disassembling a sunken Pontiac, chowing down on John’s air-tank instead of on John, and indulging in a playful tug-of-war with the final surviving member of the criminal gang over the chest containing the missing money.
A standard complaint against killer shark films is that you don’t get enough shark action. This is actually more of a commentary on the nature of these films in general than you might realise. The shark in Jaws isn’t on display all that much either, minute for minute….but for some reason, people don’t seem to notice it. In fact, this phenomenon has led me formulate the following Rule Of Film:
A good killer shark film is one in which you don’t notice how little screentime the shark(s) gets; a bad killer shark film is one where you do nothing but notice; a terrible killer shark film is one where it really doesn’t matter#.
(#The exception to this – there’s always one, isn’t there? – is the aforementioned Shark Zone, which almost compensates for its many, many, many cinematic shortcomings with a body count so ludicrously high, it feels as if the film were single-handedly trying to make up for this common deficiency amongst its brethren.)
Left with little choice, Lou Diamond Phillips agreed to do Red Water.
In this, as in so much, Red Water lands squarely in the middle of the road – to be fair, probably because of a need to deploy its effects budget with care. Hence, the film opens with a few establishing shots of the shark, adds a couple of discreetly rendered attack sequences (this was made-for-TV, so these are the blood-in-the-water kind, not the twitching-severed-limb kind), then has the shark step aside to allow the film’s subsidiary plot to occupy the middle section of the story. He’s back for the final twenty minutes or so, though, and gets to chomp his way through a fair percentage of the cast. One thing I do like about Red Water is that it junks almost all of those flogged-to-death Jaws re-workings. There’s no “event” interrupted by the shark’s presence. There’s no venal politician authorising a cover-up or refusing to close the river (he doesn’t have to: people just sensibly stay the hell out of the water). There’s no lone wolf hero unable to convince others of the shark’s existence. There’s no Little Shark©. The bounty-hunting moron brigade does put in appearance, granted, but I’m prepared to call that a sad reality rather than a cliché; and in any case, none of the hunters suffer any punishment for their behaviour; not even the one who unknowingly sends the shark back upriver.
The cumulative good-will generated by Red Water’s conscientious attempts not to copy the granddaddy of ’em all is completely blown out of the water by a short scene of such surpassing stupidity, it literally made me clutch my hair and cry out in pain.
John Sanders encounters Sheriff Landry, who tells him that there is a report of a shark attack in Lake Verret. John’s reaction is an exaggerated eyebrow lift, while the sheriff goes on to insist that such a thing simply couldn’t be, as sharks are found only in salt water; an opinion with which John concurs. It takes John’s Cajun offsider, Emery (who is, by definition, Wise In The Ways Of Nature), to clue the other two in on the fact that a bull shark could be responsible – which comes as a great surprise to them both. “Well – you learn something new every day!” observes the sheriff, while John turns on Emery with a slightly sceptical, “Bull shark, huh?”
Okay. I do realise that this is the “educate the ignorant viewer” scene; BUT---
John is a fisherman. His father was a fisherman. He grew up in this area. AND HE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT A BULL SHARK IS!!?? And then there’s Sheriff Landry of the Basin Police who, as far as we see, spends most of his time patrolling these waters. AND HE DOESN’T KNOW WHAT A BULL SHARK IS!!??
Gimme a break.
(And this is all the more infuriating because they could have had John and/or Emery – or better yet, Kelli – explaining bull sharks to Gene Bradley a bit later: his ignorance I could accept.)
Who does she think she is, Samuel L. Jackson?
If Red Water avoids many of the usual shark film clichés, it lays on almost every other kind with a disheartening enthusiasm. We got the estranged couple reunited by danger. We got the Hero With A Tragic Past. We got the EEE-vil business executive who gets his comeuppance. We got “colourful” local people who turn on a “colourful” local festival at the drop of a hat. We got an individual Colourful Person who has a Colourful Accent and a saint for every occasion, and who gets to talk about God a lot. We got a Wise Old Man who declares the shark to be a legendary spirit known as “Le Gardien De L’Anse Noir”. And above all, we got a shark that – except for the one obligatory pathos-death – is perfectly capable of telling the Good Guys from the Bad Guys. The frustrating thing, as I indicated earlier, is that there is some attempt made occasionally to twist these standards in slightly different directions. There comes a moment when John makes a self-righteous speech about Kelli working for an oil company, in spite of her “scientific principles”; but the script makes it clear that that’s what she was doing when John – who also used to work for the same company – met her, fell in love with her, and married her. In other words – John’s just being a jerk.
(Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that. What John doesn’t mention is that Kelli’s job is to study and to minimise the environmental impact of the oil company’s activities. She would, therefore, be within her rights to defend herself here. Her failure to do so suggests, in context, not that John has right on his side, or that Kelli is biting her tongue because she needs his help, but that she is fully aware that his spoken grievances are covering a multitude of unspoken ones. We get their potted history in a later scene.)
Red Water starts out looking like a Seagal-esque Big Business Is Evil film (Discovery Petroleum gets its lease by “tacking it onto an appropriations bill, and slipping it through Congress”), but the oil exploration subplot never really takes hold, despite the mutterings about human greed and retribution. Rather, the oil-rig is there primarily to provide a suitable setting for the film’s increasingly outlandish action movie content. Additionally, even though Gene Bradley is the token EEE-vil businessman, he does not get crunched by the shark; whereas a rabid environmentalist Eco-Guide, who has just gotten through a stirring speech against the oil company, does. (Although her death, we feel, owes more to the alacrity with which she shakes out her hair and poses for the camera of one of her clients than it does to her politics. Similarly, there is much more a sense that Gene’s inevitable demise is punishment for his expressed interest in Kelli than for his attachment to the oil company.) The death of the Eco-Guide is also balanced by that of the fisherman in the opening sequence, who expresses open defiance of the area’s new status as a wildlife refuge. However, the longer the film goes, the more half-hearted these efforts become; and the last third of it contains nothing you won’t be able to predict one hundred percent – except possibly the mode of the shark’s disposal. I’ll have more to say on that subject a little later.
That thing sure does get around.
The fact that, rarely for a killer shark film, the people in Red Water behave sensibly in response to the news of the shark means that the script has to come up with a reason why someone would go into the water even though they know there might be a shark there. It comes up with two, with oil-hunters and money-hunters colliding in the Black Cove. One paranoid, mouthy oil company factotum and one trigger-happy gangsta later, we’ve got a right old mess on our hands. Red Water certainly does its best to keep us distracted during the shark’s absences from the screen. We’ve got fist fights. We’ve got knife fights. We’ve got gun battles. We’ve got threatened rape. We’ve got exploding boats and oil rigs – and a few cool shots of a shark fin cutting through the reflection of the fires in the water. In other words, like most of the recent shark films, Red Water is actually an action movie in disguise; but then, why waste time and energy crafting well-rounded characters who speak interesting dialogue and face credible dilemmas when you could just – blow stuff up? To the film’s credit, though, it does have sufficient clear-sightedness to have driller-turned-fisherman John Sanders turn out to be the Least Action Hero, failing dismally at most of his attempts at acting like a tough guy, and getting beaten up a lot by the unimpressed criminals.
By this point in his career – if that’s still the right word to use – Lou Diamond Phillips has accumulated on his résumé such an impressive list of crap films that my affection for him entirely negates my ability to pass critical judgement on his performances. I’ll simply say that, as usual, Lou is neither as bad as he could have been nor as good as he should have been. Kristy Swanson, on the other hand, is good; and it’s a shame that she’s not given more to do. At the outset Kelli is presented as professional and competent (Swanson handles her jargon scenes well) and also brave – she is scared you-know-what-less by the thought of the shark, but dons her wetsuit and does her job anyway – but the longer the film goes, and the more it turns into an action movie, the more she becomes simply an object to be threatened and rescued. Every time it looks like she might actually have to take action herself, she gets knocked on the head. Hell, once even the shark knocks her on the head! It’s disappointing, and it’s annoying.
Mmm, justice. Tastes like chicken.
“Annoying” also applies to Rob Boltin and Gideon Emery’s performances, although that’s more the fault of the script than their own. As for our criminal quartet--- Oh. Dear. Well, Jaimz Woolvett isn’t so bad, I guess; and Masha K. Tumisho certainly puts a great deal of effort into convincing us that his character really is West Indian, mon. As Brett Vanrooyen, Langley Kirkwood is Red Water’s tenth, twentieth, fiftieth-rate Quint substitute. Professional diver Brett used to “swim with sharks” until one day, one of them bit him. (Not that badly, I hasten to point out: I’d love to have a scar like that!) Now, with typical human logic, he spends all his spare time killing sharks….and is introduced carrying his latest victim, a perfectly inoffensive reef shark all of two feet long. Oooooh, we’re all sooo-ooo-ooo impressed, Brett! Still – his eventual bloody death is guaranteed from that instant, so I suppose I shouldn’t quibble. Brett does have one good scene, in which he draws the bull shark to him by deliberately re-opening a wound on his forehead, but most of the time you just wish that the shark and/or Brett’s turncoat associates would Get On With It.
(Oh, yeah. Note to A Certain Other Reviewer Who Shall Be Nameless: that’s not an Australian accent that Langley Kirkwood is trying to do; it’s a South African accent. I guess all us colonials sound alike, huh?)
And then there’s Coolio. If Red Water teaches us anything, it’s that the reason why trash-talking gangstas have to carry such big guns is so they can terrify into silence the people who would otherwise collapse in hysterical laughter at having to listen to the utter manure that issues from their mouths. (Sample dialogue: “Yo’ squirrelly-ass bitch! We in four deep with yo’ punk ass!” Small wonder he feels compelled to finish every other sentence with, “You know what I’m saying?”) Coolio’s character is called “Ice”, which not only allows Brett derisively to call him both “Ice T” and “Ice Cube”, but sets up the jaw-dropping How Low Can You Go moment when Coolio actually speaks the line, “Ice, Ice, baby.” After that, any hope this film has of getting us to take him seriously is, well, shark bait.
"Yo yo squirrel blather punk yada dizzle yo yo iced vo-vo. You know what I'm saying?"
A few last points about Red Water. I said that it dodges most of the Jaws clichés, and so it does; but it still can’t resist indulging itself just once or twice. When John hears that the sheriff is on his way to Lake Verret, his immediate response is, “Boating accident?” A dumped, submerged Pontiac plays a role in the middle section of the film – and just guess what its license plate reads? Well, that was a Louisiana plate, after all…. More problematic is John’s send-off to the shark. It was painful enough when the makers of Jaws 2 forced Roy Scheider to reprise his own classic “Smile, you son of a bitch!” send-off, turning it into the monumentally lame, “Open wide! Say ‘ah’!” What’s worse is that ever since, scriptwriters have felt obliged to scramble for other ways their heroes can speed their adversaries to Shark Valhalla, most of them managing to come up with something even more monumentally lame – as indeed J.D. Feigelson and Chris Mack did here, with Lou Diamond Phillips spitting out, “Open wide, you ugly bastard!”
Open wide? Oh, yes. If you make it through Red Water, you’ll be rewarded – rewarded? – with one of the more eye-opening shark death scenes ever to grace the screen. Let’s just say that….it involves the drill on the oil-rig, and the heretofore undocumented ability of the bull shark to propel itself vertically out of the water. It’s not as dumb as the ending of Jaws: The Revenge; nothing in this world, the next world, or Australia could be as dumb as the ending of Jaws: The Revenge; but it sure gives it a run for its money.
Not that that is the end. Red Water has a coda, one in which the survivors decide that Emery, with all of his muttering about “greed” and “taking” and “retribution”, was right all along; and that they’ll pass on the $100,000 bounty placed on the shark. Hey, John? M’man? Pardon me for bringing it up, but when this film opened, weren’t you in serious debt? And didn’t you just blow up your collateral, your own boat? And aren’t you and Kelli and Emery all out of a job?
I’m telling you, only in the movies. Only in the movies….
Descending drill bit. Ascending shark. You do the math.
Footnote: What, still more revelations of skeletons in the screenwriter’s closet? Yes, indeed. I cannot, no, I really cannot close with review without stopping to point out that many years ago, Red Water’s director, Charles Robert Carner, wrote the screenplay for….Gymkata.
And they said he’d never work again….
Want a second opinion of Red Water? Visit Jabootu's Bad Movie Dimension.