“Jason Statham fights a shark.” Say the phrase aloud, let the words swirl around in your mouth like a fine wine. Better yet, let’s up the ante a bit: “Jason Statham, he of The Transporter and Crank movies, fights a giant, toothy, prehistoric shark.” There is so much promise in that sentence, so many wonderful expectations inherent in that high-concept idea. You think of the British action-movie star, a bruiser whose muscles have muscles and who resembles nothing so much as a bullet with stubble, and worry that the apex predator of the deep doesn’t stand a chance. (Does the shark know karate? Can we give the shark a gun or something, to even the odds a bit?) The Meg may be an adaptation of Steve Alten’s inaugural adventure involving a globetrotting diver/paleontologist named Jonas Taylor, the first in a popular series of pulpy airport-novels, but the elevator pitch of “Jason v. Jaws” is what’s really plopping asses in seats.
There’s just one tiny, minnow-sized problem: The movie you saw in your head when you read those words above, the gloriously goofy and grandiose blockbuster that delivers both a ridiculous amount of summer-movie fun and just plain old Stathamesque ridiculousness? That’s not what you get here. With the exception of one scene involving a harpoon and a complete disregard for the laws of physics, The Meg ends up being just a high-budget, low-value attempt to sell you a typical tale of a tortured man tracking a monster, composed of spare parts lifted from other films you love. It’s too chintzy to be a proper high-octane action flick and not nearly over-the-top campy enough to be the conduit for a great B-movie endorphin rush. This is not the Fast & Furious movie with teeth you’re looking for. It needs a bigger boat. It needs a bigger everything.
Having failed to save everybody aboard a stranded nuclear submarine that was attacked by something big years earlier, Statham’s disgraced Jonas Taylor now just wastes his days away drinking beer in a Shanghai harbor bar, wallowing in self-pity over his chicken-of-the-sea status. Meanwhile, aboard a nearby underwater research lab funded by a billionaire douchebag (The Office‘s Rainn Wilson, playing Martin Shkreli stuck in Paul Allen’s body), an expedition to explore a never-before-seen area of the ocean’s floor turns into a search-and-rescue mission. Once again, some sort of massive creature is wreaking havoc; also, Taylor’s ex-wife (Jessica McNamee) is aboard the trapped vessel. So our hero is summoned to the base, teaming up with his old friend Mac (Cliff Curtis), tech expert/hacker Jaxx (Ruby Rose), a fellow diver/scientist named Suyin (Bingbing Li) and several crew members we’ll refer to as Future Snacks No. 4, 5 and 6. The missing folks are retrieved. Whatever was threatening them, however, has followed Taylor and Co. back to the surface. He believes it’s the dreaded Megalodon, a 65-foot supershark thought to be extinct. And there may be more than one of them on the loose.
The stage is set for a rough-and-tumble, Man vs. Nature’s Killing Machine Run Amuck thrill ride that never seems to get to the thrill part. You assume it will either try to replicate the high-seas terror of Jaws, the Grand Guignol gore of the 2010 Piranha remake or the self-aware giddiness of this legendary scene from Deep Blue Sea; instead, the movie just borrows elements and steals shots from a host of waterlogged horror-adventure flicks without bothering to channel what makes those movies a blast. Director Jon Turteltaub, a man who can list both Cool Runnings and the National Treasure movies on his resume, knows how to move an impressively fearsome CGI beast around but has trouble sustaining tension or constructing action sequences that feel like they have a payoff. Statham does a curiously diluted version of his usual thing — every expression is a scowl or self-satisfied smile, every line is spat out like a chunk of half-chewed steak — only without the fun you get watching an actor who can sell “cartoonish mega-tough guy” better than anyone working today. He has a license to kill parts like this, but leaves the impression that you’re watching a computer-simulated version perform his duties. (The shark out-acts him.) As for everyone else, they either conform to one-dimensional stereotypes or get stuck with dialogue like, “It didn’t go our way. Not for [dead character’s name redacted]. NOT FOR SCIENCE!”
Eventually, the Megalodon heads to China’s Sanya Bay — the better to chew its way to the foreign market’s heart, my dear — and starts chomping on chubby kids and leg-thrashing tourists, at which point you expect the blockbuster money shots to start rolling in. Instead of a bite, The Meg merely gums its big climax, whimpering its way to a finish. Finally, you get a single moment of summer-blockbuster bliss — that aforementioned scene involving the superhuman star, a harpoon and a fuck-you to gravity — which only makes you wonder why everyone involved didn’t simply do 90 minutes of that. The Meg isn’t the worst high-concept, low-value movie to hit multiplexes this summer, but it has the distinction of being the first movie to involve Jason Statham and/or a killer beastie that can be categorized as deadly dull. It’s not even worthy of your Great White Snark.