'Go forth and return with a review of the new Jason Statham movie,' commanded the h2g2 Post Editor. 'Nothing else is acceptable this week.' Do you know, I think my years of trying to persuade him that these films are not just dystopia operas of urban pain, or something, may actually be paying off. Of course, the slight downside to this was that scheduling meant I could only see the new movie (The Meg, directed by Jon Turteltaub) at a 3D screening. Normally I avoid 3D like the plague, but the prospect of a whole extra dimension of Statham was not to be sniffed at – by me, at least.
However, hard to believe though it is, not everyone shares my passion for Jason Statham movies, and I ended up going to see this one with Sagacious Dave, Grand Master of Advanced Erudition and Head of Self-Realisation where I work. I should point out that literally everyone else in the office suddenly remembered a previous engagement or developed a migraine when I invited them to see The Meg with me. It was really more in forlorn hope than expectation that I extended the same invitation to Sagacious Dave, a senior colleague whose cinematic tastes, as far as I knew, extended only to the Planet of the Apes franchise.
'The Meg? What's it about?' enquired Sagacious Dave, furrowing his mighty brow (imagine a slightly ursine version of Gandalf).
'Jason Statham has a fight with a giant prehistoric shark,' I said.
Sagacious Dave, a man with decades of experience in the field of thinking serious thoughts, looked at me as though trying to decide which one of us had gone mad. 'Jason who?'
'Jason Statham. British movie actor. Used to be a diver, did a lot of mid-budget action movies, now he's parlayed his success in Fast and Furious into potential global megastardom,' I said, with (I think) admirable succinctness.
Sagacious Dave gave this some thought for an extended period of time. 'Yeah, all right then,' he said, with the slightly distracted air of a man entirely unsure of what he was getting himself into.
'Really?' Friends, there was an actual jig of pleasure at the prospect of introducing a great intellect such as Sagacious Dave's to the full Jason Statham experience. Then I quickly legged it to buy the tickets before he changed his mind on me.
The movie we happily settled down to watch largely concerns the crew of an advanced marine research installation off the Chinese coast, and we are introduced to the cast with admirable economy: although the fact that most of them are stock characters helps with this a bit, I suppose. There is an obnoxious American tycoon (Rainn Wilson), a distinguished Chinese oceanographer (Winston Chao), his daughter (Li Bingbing), who's in the same line, and her daughter (Shuya Sophia Cai), who mostly seems to be there to tick some kind of cute kid box. Running the place is a strait-laced administrator (Cliff 'Maori Jesus' Curtis), a bright-but-rebellious tech whiz (Ruby Rose), a comic-relief African-American (Page Kennedy), and so on.
The team are sending a manned sub into a previously-unexplored aquatic realm which is beneath the sea bed, sort of; it is basically a sort of lost world, underwater. Wouldn't you know it but the sub gets into trouble, stranding three people six miles down. Who can possibly save them? Well, someone suggests ace deep-sea rescue expert Jonas Taylor, even though an encounter with a mysterious creature at the bottom of the sea some years previously led him to abandon deep-sea rescuing and become a beach bum in Thailand.
This is, needless to say, the role given to Mr Statham. They take a swing at the scene where he initially refuses to come back but is eventually forced by his own better nature to agree, but this is such a formality than no-one's heart seems to be in it. Soon enough, and despite apparently having been in an alcoholic stupor for the last five years, Mr Statham is piloting his own version of Thunderbird Four towards the murky depths. But there is a problem, for it seems that something big and hungry is menacing the trapped divers – an eighty-foot shark, long thought extinct. 'It's a megalodon,' says Jason Statham, his grim face that of a man recognising a terrifying threat. Or, possibly, that of a man who has pronounced megalodon wrong on the previous sixteen takes and is on the verge of having a serious row with the director.
Well, there is inevitably some chomping and frantic rushing about and a good degree of defiance of death, and the monster fish ends up venturing into the upper waters where there are many more people to eat. Not unreasonably, the local authorities treat our heroes' warnings of a giant prehistoric shark on the loose as the equivalent of a prank call, so it's clearly up to Mr Statham to deal with the problem. But what can he do? Well, based on my own reading of the Statham canon, I was expecting him to lure the shark into a disused garage, take his shirt off, and punch the fish to death...
The Meg is a movie which has enjoyed a lengthy stay in the hotel known as Development Hell, from which it has emerged as one of those family-friendly transnational blockbusters clearly gunning for the same dollar as the Jurassic Park movies – indeed, this film is basically Jurassic Shark. (For a long time it was just known as Meg, but the title has been changed, presumably so no-one mistakes it for a film about the Duchess of Sussex.) There is astonishingly little gore, given the subject matter, and the presence of actors like Zhao and Li, not to mention the Asian settings, are an obvious pitch for the lucrative oriental market. In some ways it kind of reminds me of the recent Dwayne Johnson blockbuster Skyscraper, in terms of its tone and the very calculated way it has been rendered as commercially attractive as possible – indeed, I wonder if the producers originally tried to recruit Johnson for the project, and had to settle for the guy he spent much of Fast and Furious 8 standing next to, Jason Statham being (literally) the next best thing.
As I say, the downside of Jason Statham's rise to superstardom over the last five years or so has been that he simply doesn't make as many movies as he used to: basically, he just does one movie a year now, as opposed to the three or four you could expect back near the start of the decade. Of course, the movies are bigger, but I would hate to see his essential Stathamity blanded out by the demands of a megablockbuster. Happily, this does not seem to be the case, for The Meg finds our man on fine, laconic form, and the film itself has many moments of tongue-in-cheek humour and in no way takes itself at all seriously. Some of the character-based stuff feels a bit redundant – Statham's ex-wife is one of the people he has to rescue, but this just feels like over-plotting more than anything else – but I guess that's the nature of the transnational blockbuster: focus groups like laboriously-articulated character moments and cute kids, so they will appear in this kind of movie.
Along with all that, there's a rather obvious three-act structure going on here: the effects-heavy deep-sea rescue sequence setting the whole thing up, then a section basically restaging all your favourite bits from Jaws in a Chinese context (this concludes with a rather so-so plot twist), and then finally the shark arriving at a big seaside resort and carving a swathe through the holidaymakers while Statham and his friends prepare to attempt to deal with it. And, you know, it's not scintillatingly original or insightful stuff, but it's very competently assembled and a lot of fun to watch. You're never actually in any doubt as to what's going to happen next, but that's really the nature of a genre movie, which is what The Meg is.
But what, you may be wondering, did Sagacious Dave make of all the stereoscopic wonders taking place before us? (In my opinion the 3D is just as annoying and distracting as usual, but I forgot to ask him what he thought of it.) Well, I am happy to report that there were many amused huffs and chortles coming from the seat next to me throughout the film. 'I want more death! It would add to the authenticity of it,' was whispered in my ear at one point, and there were approving noises shortly after when a few minor cast members were summarily devoured. Audible delight followed during the shark's rampage just offshore of a major tourist beach, and an actual cry of 'Captain ****ing Ahab!' at one point during the climax. (Sagacious Dave and I were in agreement that the conclusion of the film is particularly inventive and satisfying.)
So, in the end, we decided that The Meg is commercial cinema of the most unashamed kind, but none the worse for that – 'for a genre movie, that was actually a lot of fun,' was Sagacious Dave's final, considered opinion. And I can hardly disagree with him on that. I am not sure the world has actually been waiting for a 3D Jason Statham movie in which he has a fight with a giant prehistoric shark, but if it has, then The Meg is definitely the one.