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Bait

Director: Kimble Rendall
Cast: Phoebe Tonkin, Julian McMahon, Xavier Samuel, Sharni Vinson

(US DVD: 18 Sep 2012)

I blame Spielberg. When Jaws hit theatres in 1975, it did more than invent the summer blockbuster, the brainless mass-appeal popcorn movie, the franchise starter, blah blah blah: it also introduced sharks as a bankable cinematic villain. Previously, that role had been held by apes—think of the travails of King Kong and Mighty Joe Young, and any number of gorilla-in-the-jungle or gorilla-on-the-loose movies. Spielberg’s brilliance was to recast his monster as a creature that was out of sight most of the time, one that lived in an element that was deadly to humans to begin with, then explore the nasty consequences that occurred when the boundary between those two environments—above the water, and below it—was violated.


So obviously, you can blame Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3 (1983), and Jaws: the Revenge (1987) on the original; but why stop there? If we’re assigning blame, let’s not forget Deep Blue Sea (1999), Malibu Shark Attack (2009), Swamp Shark (2011), Two-Headed Shark Attack (2012), Dinoshark and Sharktopus (both 2010), or even Sharks in Venice (2009, and that one’s kind of a classic, actually). And into this heady pile you can also toss Australian film product Bait.


The makers of Bait were faced with the same conundrum posed to any would-be shark filmmaker: the need for a new angle. Yes, sharks are big, sharks are ferocious and scary, yes they seem inordinately fond of eating just about anything that comes their way, humans included. This is old news. How to make it new again? Well, how about this time around, the sharks are in a supermarket?


I know what you’re thinking: “Sharks? In a supermarket? Great idea, Aussies! Pass the Fosters!” To their credit, though, the filmmakers do a reasonable job of explaining how the sharks got into the supermarket (think subterannean shopping center + tidal wave). What they are less successful at is creating characters who are in any way interesting enough to cause the audience to give a hoot whether or not they wind up as fish food. Raise your hand if this surprises you.


So then, we have a fairly predictable set of characters: the bad girl (piercings!), her well-meaning boyfriend (no piercings!), and tough but fair-minded father (crew cut!); the dumb girl (blonde!) and her dumb boyfriend (also blond!) and their, or actually her pomeranian (incredibly annoying!); the nice guy with a haunted past and the girl who left him but still harbors feelings for him (hot!); the nefarious evildoer (tattooed, sneering!); the nefarious evildoer’s evil sidekick, who’s actually a nice guy forced into a bad situation because of his haunted past, or something (hangdog look of remorse!) and so on.


There is potential here for at least some of these characters to behave in interesting, unexpected ways, but you know, there’s really no time for all that—there are sharks out there, and they’re hungry.


So after maybe 30 minutes of setting up these various familiar plotlines—30 minutes of objective time, that is, as things really feel much longer while you’re watching it all—the surf hits the fan so to speak, the tidal wave does its tidal thing, the subterranean shopping center becomes a subaquatic shopping center, and it’s time for lunch.


Characters are picked off one by one, with death visited upon either unappealing whiners and villains or else to heroic folks who sacrifice themselves for the common good. There’s much emoting and hysteria displayed onscreen, but the viewer will feel very little of it in his/her heart, not because the viewer is a soulless unfeeling machine, but because the writers of this particular piece of entertainment have done little if anything to make these characters into individuals whose lives and deaths are in any way meaningful. In other words, typical slasher movie here, with the shark doing the bulk of the slashing.


I love bad movies as much as anyone, but there are two types of bad, the better of the two being the over-the-top, anything-goes bizarre-fests a la the original Death Race 2000, A Sound of Thunder, the aforementioned Sharks in Venice and the films of Ed Wood. On the other hand is plain old drudgery: movies that get made simply to go through the motions, whose every turn you can see from miles away. Bait isn’t quite at that level of dullness, but it’s mighty close. There is really very little here that is fun or surprising, even in an outrageous, slap-you-forehead kind of way. The tag line on the DVD box—“Cleanup on aisle seven”—is the most entertaining thing about this movie. That’s just not right.


The DVD is a bare-bones affair, the only extras being a gallery of preproduction sketches. There is a 3D version available on blu-ray, but the DVD edition I watched was flat (in more ways than one). If you’re a hardcore bad-movie aficianado or shark-film enthusiast who just can’t resist the sharks-in-the-supermarket trope, then go ahead and watch this. Everyone else can safely give it a miss.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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The film's most effective balancing act comes in the form of Foxx's terrific performance: throughout, he's quirky, subtle, and thankfully able to keep up with the movie's lurching tone-and-genre shifts, from comedy to action to almost-arty to melodrama.
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