Spring break: Sun, water, ear-splitting hip hop music, booze-swilling horny guys, brazen bikini babes — and millions of razor-sharp teeth. Welcome to Lake Victoria, the fictional locale of Piranha 3D, the remake of Joe Dante’s 1978 movie of the same name. The film’s “coed rowdy-party” setting isn’t one you usually see in the work of Alexandre Aja, the man behind the superb, genre-pushing French slasher, Haute Tension. Since coming stateside, however, the director has faltered, delivering the less-than-stellar Mirrors and The Hills Have Eyes. The good news is his work on Piranha 3D demonstrates that Aja is on his game again.
Piranha 3D is an odd pastiche: Part scary, part funny, part “Girls Gone Wild” video, part grindhouse, part remake, and part horror parody that pays homage to, and pokes fun at, two of genre’s classics — Jaws and Dead Alive. References to the latter should come as no surprise to anyone, given Peter Jackson co-wrote the script, along with Josh Stolberg. The film is schlocky, tacky, and gory in the extreme; so know ahead of time, I’m not talking about a tasteful cinematic masterpiece here. What I am talking about is an energetic, water park-like thrill ride that is as big on laughs as it is on blood and shredded bodies.
It’s March in Lake Victoria and Sherriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) have their hands full patrolling the 5,000 plus college kids who have descended on the town to celebrate in licentious abandon their week-long school recess, that annual rite-of passage known as spring break. An underwater earthquake has opened a passage in the lake’s floor leading to an underground body of water, unleashing a horde of predatory prehistoric piranha into the lake.
Forester’s teenage son Jake (Steven R. McQueen) has been assigned babysitting duty. But Jake would much rather play location scout to the sex-obsessed “Wild Girls Online” video promoter, Derrick Jones (played with uncharacteristic gusto by Jerry O’Connell). After bribing his younger brother and sister to keep quiet and then abandoning them to their own devices, Jake and girlfriend Kelly (Jessica Szohr) join Jones aboard his boat to help in the filming of his new girl-on-girl video.
Once they discover the existence of the piranha, Forester and Fallon order the coeds out of the lake, but to no avail. Within minutes, the piranha attack. This part of the story gives “splat pack” director Aja the opportunity to do what he loves best — showcase his talents conjuring blood, gore, and violence. Not surprisingly, his mean-spirited mass feeding frenzy scenes get a lot of screen time. Aja’s camera relishes the enactment of the massacre; he gives us shot after bloody shot of the ravenous creatures rending the flesh off the bones of their human prey. The little guys don’t leave behind much meat.
Given the slight material of Piranha 3D, the ensemble cast performs admirably. As Forester, Shue is tough and sexy, as only a “woman doing a man’s job” can be. Though a little on the cutesy side, McQueen (the grandson of the iconic Steve) is earnest in his role as Jake. Like his grandfather, he has definite screen appeal. He and co-star Szorh have great chemistry too. Jerry O’Connell steals every scene he’s in playing the sleazy Jones, a character “loosely” inspired by Joe Francis. In fact, O’Connell features in the film’s funniest, albeit most sick-minded, scene. I won’t say exactly what it is, but it involves a severed body part and a piranha with discriminating taste.
Unfortunately, Ving Rhames’ Deputy Fallon is off screen more than on. However, he does get to play hero in a scene reminiscent of arguably the funniest moment in Dead Alive. Wielding a boat motor propeller like a chainsaw, Fallon dispatches the piranha, Benihana-style.
There’s nothing unpredictable or unexpected about Piranha 3D. So, I’m not really giving anything away when I say, yes, the humans do triumph over the piranha. Between Fallon’s unusual filleting technique and Jake’s clever use of a cell phone, the terrifying razor-toothed predators are reduced to a benign combo-platter of sushi and fried fish.