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If, after 12 viewings of Titanic, you still haven’t seen enough wet, mouth-breathing people sloshing desperately down whitewater hallways, action-flick has-been Renny Harlin’s latest venture is for you. It does not, as it promises at first glance, star Geena Davis, Viggo Mortensen, Anne Heche, Arye Gross, and Samuel L. Jackson; Harlin can’t afford these actors, even the one who is his ex-wife, so he’s pooled all his cash and hired Jackson, along with fractured-mirror no-name simulacra of the other stars. It’s like looking at those sad Barbie knock-offs you see in dollar stores: you know, Terri and Her Friends.

Jackson plays a chemical company honcho visiting an underwater laboratory cutely called Aquatica to decide whether his company should continue funding its controversial Alzheimer’s research, which consists of toying with sharks’ brains as a way of harvesting protein—ach, doesn’t matter. (Da-dup. Da-dup…) Saffron Burrows, a sort of knock-kneed, deflated Geena Davis, plays Dr. Susan McAlester, renegade scientist in white bra and panties; Thomas Jane is the studly parolee and shark-jostling hero “Carter Blake,” who, although he is servant to Dr. Suzy, understands both the shark project and the mechanics of chicks’ needs better than she: Sharks, like men, want freedom; chicks, of course, need a strong man to take over.

The chums in the cast include perky blond Jacqueline McKenzie, impersonating Anne Heche with all her might, and Michael Rapaport as the Aquatica security expert. (Duh-da-da-da-da, duh-da-da-da-da…) The film opens with four libidinous, scantily clad teens, clearly too stupid to live, being menaced by this year’s “Bruce,” the impressive mechanical shark built for Steven Spielberg’s seminal daylight horror film Jaws, albeit a shark with better taste in women (not just women who taste good). Deep Blue Sea is all over Jaws like salt on jellyfish. From the first bikini-‘n’-dorsal-fin sighting to the, er, explosive ending, DBS is Spielberg’s literate modern folktale gone Hollywood—bigger (three sharks, all with scimitar-sharp, corkscrew teeth), wetter (lots of ominously spurting door cracks and flooded interiors), and a good deal dumber (points off for major artery-spurting action).

So it’s pretty good, as overpriced adventure gross-outs go; after his career walked the plank with Cutthroat Island, Harlin has been such a disgraced name in the halls of profit that one forgets he can turn in a credible action/suspense flick. DBS hits all of its marks—watermarks?—without making the audience actually jeer at it, like certain other so-called horror movies whose initials are The Haunting. When the newly smartened-up sharks shut down the video systems and lighting grid, and demonstrate other fun new tricks like swimming backward and recognizing threats, Carter thinks that the next logical move is to swim down there in a sleeveless T-shirt and bring one of those babies up into the lab. The film’s cleverness is in setting up the cat-and-mouse game, as it were, between shark and human; Carter doesn’t become human sushi when he goes to fetch the big mean female. Rather, she arrives without incident to the place where all the control panels and escape hatches are, thus setting the terror in motion.

The humans’ dilemma—how to get topside before getting eaten or drowned—is confronted with logical decisions. It is infinitely more engaging to watch intelligent, if wisecracking, human beings use reason in trying to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation than it is to watch them run down hallways in white nighties toward whatever room, preferably the cellar, is making the most sinister noise. As means of escape are closed off, Carter et al. brainstorm—which levels are most flooded, how to use buoyancy to their advantage, how much damage the struts will endure—to try to find another.

Deep Blue Sea’s script won’t wow the folks at Cannes, but it has plenty of nail-biting passages, and the action direction has a glib but effective confidence in its manipulation of suspense. There are a couple of nifty shocks that produce that roller-coaster-plunge effect in the audience—a screaming laughter or laughing scream that drowns out the next minute of dialogue. And you get to see sharks explode—which is very bitchen—a spectacular helicopter crash, and a fabulous fire, and watch Jackson make an inspirational speech while wearing a wetsuit and a pair of $600 eyeglass frames.

Which brings us to the bad, or maddeningly ambiguous, news. In the film’s worst offense and weirdest attempt at redemption, the filmmakers have given the Disneyesque waterland a pair of not-quite-human wiseacres, the pious but funky-fresh Aquatica chef (LL Cool J) and his foulmouthed parrot, Bird. I am heartily sorry to say that upon recovering from destruction in what’s left of his kitchen, the chef—nicknamed Preach—reaches for the intact bottle of cooking wine with the words, “I’m gonna take this as a sign.” It pains me to report that he manages to sneak a look at a Playmate magazine while running from a shark and stutters, “Please let me live through this.” My oath as a journalist insists I admit that Preach climbs a baker’s rack, gibbering, his butt sticking out sharkward and eyes popping, and that, throughout the entire movie, none of the white people ever give him a thought or mention his name. They mourn two unfortunate dead folk, both white, but never wonder how old Preach is doing down in the scullery. Does the fact that he indeed becomes the hero of the film and saves the day in a calculatedly effective series of audience-rousing resurrections mitigate the portrait of the frightened, fun-loving Negro that came before? I have no idea. It’s as if he’s punished in advance for being smarter, stronger, and more resourceful than the white folk. Still, the fact that he outlives most of them should be revenge enough. CP