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The shark bites with its teeth, dear, in Renny Harlin's effective "Deep Blue Sea"

By Noel Murray

AUGUST 9, 1999:  Director Renny Harlin made his reputation by knocking out sequels--installments in the Nightmare on Elm Street and Die Hard series that were profitable and surprisingly inoffensive. He then trashed that rep with the disastrous Cutthroat Island, a pirate farce that buckled under the weight of its dumb action clichés, catchphrases, and attitude. Harlin followed with the equally nutty (and fiscally unsound) The Long Kiss Goodnight, and perhaps as penance he now returns with Deep Blue Sea, a bare-bones shark-attack pulse-pounder that proves he can still hit the blockbuster bull's-eye without too much collateral damage.

Samuel L. Jackson stars as a pharmaceutical-company head who flies out to a remote ocean laboratory after a test shark gets loose and terrorizes some necking teens. At the derrick, Jackson finds a suitably motley crew--including colorful character actors Stellan Skarsgard, Michael Rapaport, and LL Cool J, as well as underwear-models-in-training Thomas Jane and Saffron Burrows--who are studying sharks to develop a treatment for Alzheimer's Disease. What they develop instead are three superintelligent, supersized makos, who use the occasion of Jackson's visit to wreak super-havoc.

What Harlin has developed is not one sequel but four--new riffs on Jaws, Jurassic Park, Sphere, and even Titanic that show admirable gall. Never let it be said that Harlin's years of yeomanry haven't had purpose: As he proved in Cliffhanger, audiences may groan at the clichés Harlin amasses, but they keep watching, if only to see what old trick the new dogs will perform.

Deep Blue Sea is actually recommendable for several reasons, not least of which is that, despite its large cast, each character remains distinct (one-dimensional, yes, but distinct). And though it may seem minor, it's pretty neat that the one character who should wear a shirt labeled "First to Die" actually survives to the final reel, while the character most likely to deliver the film's final line suffers the most hilariously shocking end since the bus accident in Meet Joe Black.

Does this mean Renny Harlin is back? Well, it's debatable whether he was anywhere to begin with, let alone whether he left or returned. Deep Blue Sea is still as dopey, banal, and full of holes as any big Harlin action picture, and it's almost sunk by a third-act shark hunt that comes just when the audience is ready to towel off. But given that the film provides a few good jumps and a laugh or two, let's just say that the Master of the Routine has recovered his inner timetable.

Erin go blah

Prompted by a run on all things Gaelic--books, albums, even cultural phenomena like Riverdance--Hollywood has fallen all over itself to make or distribute movies with an Irish connection. On the serious side, we've had Michael Collins, The Butcher Boy, and The General; on the farcical side, Widow's Peak, The Matchmaker, and Waking Ned Divine.

This Is My Father, a tale of family history in the old country, unfortunately has more in common with the latter group than the former, despite the fact that it's a drama. What these films share is the exploitation of Irish stereotypes to produce a shallow old-world ambiance. Drinking, dancing, piping, fighting, and repenting at mass the next day--this popular, cartoonish conception of Irish life is lovingly perpetuated by such movies.

For his first film, director Paul Quinn joins forces with his brothers Aidan (actor) and Declan (director of photography), a good start for a story of tangled family roots. James Caan plays a Chicago schoolteacher with an unresponsive elderly mother, a harried sister, and a rebellious teenage nephew. Prompted by a cryptic note on the back of a photograph, he takes his nephew to Ireland to discover the identity of his father, for whom he was named. An obliging Gypsy stereotype relates the tale: In the 1930s, a rich girl fell in love with an orphaned man (Quinn), thus scandalizing the town and leading to tragedy.

Wasting little time on its framing device, the movie flashes back to the past soon after Caan arrives in County Galway, and it returns to the present only for brief intermissions--a shame, given that Caan is by far the most interesting character in the film. Aidan Quinn doesn't help matters by playing aggressively against type, suppressing all his natural charm in favor of shuffles, stooped shoulders, and breathy mumbling.

Worse, the flashback story substitutes atmosphere for incident, reducing the past to picturesque locations shot with blue filters. By contrast, the present-day story has been trimmed to almost nothing. Apart from a visit to his father's grave, Caan barely gets to react to what he's learned, and the rebellious nephew is apparently tamed by two flirtatious Catholic schoolgirls.

The movie only comes alive during two brief cameo roles added solely for name actors. In the first, John Cusack literally comes out of the clear blue sky to deliver rapid-fire patter to the lovers and to engage in a spirited game of beach football. In the second, Stephen Rea delivers a glowering sermon on sin, then enters the confessional to revel in his penitents' sexual fantasies. That these two segments are so inexplicable, so alien to the overfamiliar world of This Is My Father, gives them a weird spark of originality that the rest of the film lacks. --Donna Bowman

A limp 'Dick'

If Richard Nixon were roasting in hell, he still couldn't suffer a sorrier fate than Dick. To be chained with fire, to be invoked with fear, fury, or resentful awe long after one's death--these are at least a measure of power. To wind up as a punch line, though, is to have your every accomplishment, good or bad, forgotten while your Halloween mask haunts the earth. Dick is the next best thing to spending eternity in a dunking booth.

Dick's premise is that two giggly teens (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) manage to get invited into the Nixon White House by accidentally witnessing the Watergate break-in. Once inside, their dopey antics shape history--whether slipping hash cookies to Kissinger and Brezhnev, or serving as "Deep Throat" for vain, bickering Bob Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Carl Bernstein (Bruce McCullough).

If Dick had been made 25 years ago, its feeble gags might've at least seemed topical. But why was this made today? The director, Andrew Fleming, seems more interested in period detail than politics: Dick treats Nixon as another funny piece of '70s bric-a-brac, and Dan Hedaya makes him a stubbly Scooby Doo villain. The result isn't satire; it's more like Haldeman and Ehrlichman's High School Reunion.

Maybe Nixon's punishment for Watergate, bombing Cambodia, and trampling the Constitution is going down in history as the target of cheap, irrelevant jokes. But there's no reason we should have to go to hell with him. To swipe one of its own lame gags, Dick sucks. --Jim Ridley

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