Sunday, 10 November 2019

Piranha II: Flying Killers

Structurally, at least in terms of the characters and situations that drive rather than hinder the piece, Piranha II: Flying Killers appears to have been designed as a straight-faced follow-up to Joe Dante's gleeful original, trading in that film's knowing carnage for something resembling a late 70s tech thriller. Credited director (and uncredited co-writer) James Cameron famously spent a couple of weeks at this sequel's helm before he was jettisoned in favour of the film's producer, Ovidio G Assonitis. Cameron has described his role as that of a patsy, an American sounding name that could be attached to the film for the US market, belying its more diffuse, European origins.

Piranha II is, for the most part, awful. Despite an obvious through-line centring around several clashing experts and their preferred approach to airborne teeth, the film prefers the company of placeholder people. We suffer through the larks of the doomed and the wild tonal shifts these antics present. Our victims are feckless, moneyed Americans on holiday in the tropics, burning up and snooping around. The women are depicted as oversexed or manipulative; the men podgy and compliant. As a dramatic axis, all these nobodies provide is a brief moment of expectation when, as a blubbery, drunken horde, they prepare to descend on a nighttime beach to scoop up vulnerable, mating fish. We know it isn't loved up grunion they'll find down there but the snarling, gene-spliced Flying Killers. Disappointingly, even this brief thrill is thwarted.

Piranha II's gliding, dry land attacks are laughable. The frenzied, frothy pace dictated by Joe Dante and Mark Goldblatt's cutting on the previous film is nowhere to be found here. Instead puppets blast around on piano wire then flap around uselessly after connecting themselves to their victim's throats. In deference to the works of HR Giger, not to mention the Flying Killers' mad science origin, an effort has clearly been made to render these creatures as bio-mechanical. Their faces are agonised skulls while their bodies resemble industrial tubing painted gunmetal gray. Glimpsed briefly, the design is striking but Piranha II refuses to conceal them, demanding we stare at the puppets in long, neutral close-up until all sense of danger dissipates.

Running concurrently with this mulch plotting are three characters who better align with the combative experts seen in James Cameron's later work. Tricia O'Neil and Lance Henriksen play Anne and Steve, an estranged couple who allow the writer-director to construct a couple of scenes around thwarted expertise and clashing professional objectives. Anne is a marine biologist currently working as a diving instructor; Steve is an intense local cop who lets dynamite fishing slide and enjoys a strange, disposable attitude towards his police helicopter. Frustrating any chance of reconciliation is Steve Marachuk's Tyler Sherman, a military biochemist who poses as a diving student as a way to discretely investigate a wreck that the piranhas have infested. The brief, sexual relationship that arises between Tyler and Anne recalls an infidelity subplot from Peter Benchley's Jaws novel, a complication between Chief Brody and Hooper that never made it into Steven Spielberg's killer fish progenitor text.

All of Piranha II's best moments take place underwater, away from queued-up victims and the actor who decided to interpret the familial love between Anne and her son as a series of leering, nose-jutting flirtations. Submerged, the distraction of misfiring drama disappears, replaced with prolonged, silent exploration. These sequences are not only beautifully photographed by Roberto D'Ettorre Piazzoli, they also facilitate moments of believable, claustrophobic tension - emotional notes completely absent from the rest of the film. Anne and Tyler clawing their way along the rusted interior of a sunken ship while a bomb timer ticks down is a clear antecedent to a similar sequence in Aliens. The scale and stakes may be completely different but both retreats represent action, and its moment-to-moment frustrations, as their own, distinct, approach to storytelling.

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