TV Review: ‘Sharknado 2: The Second One’ offers more polish, slightly less charm

07.30.14 5 years ago

I know I've thought it and said it and probably even written it, but there's something vaguely condescending about the notion that the “Sharknado” franchise is somehow review-proof or review-immune or however you'd prefer to view it. 

Just because something is designed to be a guilty pleasure doesn't mean that it can't achieve its goals with more or less craft.

And just because something isn't necessarily meant to be taken seriously doesn't mean that those aspirations can't be achieved with more or less success.

Because the desire to be taken seriously or viewed as legitimate is hardly an argument to be reviewed or acknowledged in the case of utter ineptitude. 

For example, look at CBS' “Under the Dome.” It has a literary pedigree, some respectable creative auspices, a cast of familiar TV faces, a position of some prominence in CBS' lineup and a reputation as a summertime success, even if that reputation hasn't been supported by recent ratings.

And “Under the Dome” is awful. It's as inert and inept a show as there is on TV, a showcase for shoddy effects, leaden pacing, dead-ended plotting and a slew of performances that run the full gamut from wooden to petrified wooden. 

No matter the patina of frivolity that coats Wednesday's (July 30) premiere of “Sharknado 2: The Second One,” there's almost no level on which this Syfy original movie is inferior.  

Unlike “Under the Dome,” “Sharknado 2” has a sense of playfulness that infuses its variably successful effects shots, its sometimes stumbling momentum and its unflagging commitment to delivering ridiculously audacious set-pieces. And unlike “Under the Dome,” every one of the actors on-screen in “Sharknado” clearly wants to be there and even if that's because they're aware they couldn't be doing anything else, why is that so bad? 

This isn't to say that “Sharknado 2” is some great piece of made-for-TV art. In improving its empirical quality, the sequel has absolutely lost some of its ephemeral charm. But it's absolutely a thing that is capable of being evaluated objectively, as more than just an “It is what it is” or an “If you liked the first one you'll like this one” level.

So let's do that, eh?

If we're being honest, the original “Sharknado” wasted a pretty fair amount of time before delivering on its promise of meteorologically implausible airborne sharks. If you'll recall, there was the preamble with Mexican fishermen harvesting sharks for Japanese soup. There was at least one shark attack in the water and then some flooding and then some traffic on the 405. But you're talking 20 or 30 minutes of schlock before a water spout actually formed and began tossing sharks with the impunity that twisters once reserved for wayward cows. We were patient because “Sharknado” offered Cassie Scerbo in a bikini, the opportunity to ponder Ian Ziering's hair-plugs and the school bus full of children bobbing in shark-filled waters. And, at that point, the very prospect of a sharknado was enough to keep us going, because it offered something glorious and unprecedented, specifically the combined power of sharks and, you know, tornados. 

In “Sharknado 2: The Second One,” returning scribe Thunder Levin — the “Olivier Megaton” of weather-based disaster movies — and director Anthony C. Farrante aren't messing around. Our story begins with Fin Shepard (Ian Ziering) and April (Tara Reid) flying to New York for reasons that are essentially irrelevant. She's promoting her book “How To Survive a Sharknado” and he's visiting his sister (Kari Wuhrer) and his brother-in-law (Mark McGrath), his estranged best friend, and trying to avoid going to a Mets game.

Before you can say “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” Fin is seeing sharks flying out the window and because “Sharknado 2” isn't a movie with a deep engagement in human psychological trauma or PTSD, you know he isn't seeing some mythical gremlins. The “Sharknado” franchise isn't about hallucinations or fragmentary visions of reality. If somebody is seeing a shark on the wing of their plane, that isn't a willful delusion or metaphor. There's a freaking shark on the freaking wing of the freaking plane. Nobody's going to end a “Sharknado” movie saying, “And it turned out there was a little sharknado in all of us” or “The true sharknado was love.” No, the true sharknado is the shark-infused tornado determined to kill as many K-list actors as possible.

Soon, the airplane is being beset upon by sharks, which is really annoying for the pilot, played by Robert Hays, who admits that he's flown in tough circumstances before and also that he had been contemplating trying the fish on this ill-fated flight.

Yup. “Sharknado 2: The Second One” is that kind of movie, veering more into “spoof” territory than the first one, which isn't to say that “Sharknado” was meant as high drama, but it wasn't calling attention to its absurdity in quite the same way as the sequel. 

The original “Sharknado” was pretty quaint, in fact. It didn't cast Tara Reid and Ian Ziering to wink at the audience so much as it cast them because they were available and willing to take the paychecks. John Heard was as close as it came to having a credibility-giving veteran presence, while Robbie “Cousin Oliver” Rist was as close as it came to a “Holy cow, was that…” obscure cameo. You could almost watch “Sharknado” and think that people didn't know “Sharknado” was going to become a phenomenon. Crazy, right?

Nobody is going to watch “Sharknado 2” and get the same feeling. Whereas once, the “Sharknado” was a lone shark, proudly swimming against the tide, “Sharknado 2” has accumulated a veritable school of remora fish, latching onto the franchise and sucking up any scraps available, however meager. 

Either because he wants to give every cameo its due, or because he doesn't know what else to do with the camera, Ferrante gives nearly every “Sharknado 2” actual similar prominence, giving the impression that each and every role in the movie is filled by somebody whose identity you'd recognize if only you spent enough time watching E!, Bravo, Weather Channel, Syfy and other NBC-Universal-related properties. If “Hollywood Game Night” is where reputable talent goes to drink and frolic, “Sharknado 2” is where less reputable talent goes to die. Sure, I recognized the Kelly Osbournes, Andy Dicks and Biz Markies of the world and I even, heaven help me, recognized Perez Hilton, but I'm reasonably sure I missed at least a half-dozen cameos because I don't know what Downton Julie Brown's 2014 face looks like.

To return to the comparison I made in the intro, the “Sharknado 2” core cast is in all ways more convincing when it comes to depicting the jeopardy of their circumstances than the people trapped under a bubble in Chester's Mill. Who are you going to trust in a moment of crisis, Mike Vogel or Ian Ziering? If you answered “Mike Vogel,” you're wrong. 

Ziering may not be the best of leading men for all circumstances, but in this particular capacity, he's utterly admirable, stalwart and sturdy enough to dodge the clumsy dialogue, but never quite charismatic enough to make you forget that the real stars here are the CGI sharks. It's not called “SteveSandersnado,” now is it? Ziering gets that. And Mark McGrath gets that as well, matching energy levels with Ziering so perfectly that you can imagine each of them getting to front future “Sharknado” films. And with “Eight Legged Freaks” and “Anaconda” on her resume, Kari Wuhrer is a veteran of the “Run scared from CGI beasties” genre, though viewers of a certain age will be sad that Wuhrer has moved out of the phase in her career at which directors rely on her for gratuitous jiggle, not that she isn't still smashing at 47. [It's at least semi-notable that, for the most part, Syfy's original movies resist even PG-13 level sexuality, very much picking their poison in the exploitation department. “Sharknado 2” features Wuhrer, Tara Reid and softcore vet Tiffan Shepis, but keeps them bundled up and uncomfortable-looking throughout.]

Judd Hirsch contributes valuable “Taxi” references and genial comedy and he, like Ziering, seems to relish that nobody asked him to shave or brush his hair for this particular gig. There are also fine appearances by the likes of Richard Kind and Robert Klein.

Other than the totally acceptable Wuhrer, the “Sharknado 2” women have problems. It remains a sad fact that Tara Reid, while a big enough name for movies in this genre, lacks the emotive range to be scared of flying sharks. She tries hard, but to no avail and I was left wondering why, exactly, Cassie Scerbo wasn't included in the sequel. In contrast, Vivica A. Fox may have decided that since nobody bothered writing her a role, she didn't have to act to collect her paycheck. Her character has a past with Ian Ziering's Fin, but it's a silly past and in the present, she's just helping him kill sharks to very little benefit.  

There are a couple kids in “Sharknado 2,” but unlike those darned “Under the Dome” kids, they didn't make things worse and I was able to entirely forget that they were there. Again, in your face, “Under the Dome.”

Like the remora supporting “actors,” “Sharknado 2” also benefits from newly desirable real estate to accrue an assortment of product plugs, none presented with any aspiration of subtlety. Coors Light and Subway must have donated amply, while the cross-branding platforms for the likes of Matt Lauer and Al Roker must have helped flesh out the budget as well, at the cost of only Lauer and Roker's collective dignity. 

And with the added budget, Ferrante looks like a much better director. Even in the screener I watched, which claimed to feature incomplete effects, the sharks are slightly better realized, as are the various weather phenomena and there are far fewer mismatched cuts illustrating the lack of proper filming coverage. “Sharknado” was far from the most amateurish of the Syfy originals, but it had a “Let's put on a show” unpolished roughness. “Sharknado 2” at times threatens to look like a real movie.

Therein lies a problem with “Sharknado 2” that's harder to get past than Tara Reid. “Sharknado 2” is mostly invested in upping the ante on the first movie, without quite as much charm. So the Statue of Liberty's head replaces the Santa Monica Ferris Wheel and we get stunts involving chainsaws and bombed funnel clouds and people pass through sharks. I think there are different types of sharks here, other than a squid or two, additional types of marine life have not been caught up in this storm, so we don't get to find out what havoc could be wreaked by carelessly flung orcas or manatee. New York offers some fresh locations — A sequence in Citi Field must have been shot with the Mets in town, because it's empty — and a surly-but-united populace, but it only occasionally delivers on the bigger-and-better aspirations. The increased budget appears to have been put into professionalism over scale and I think I'd have personally preferred the latter.

OK. I have more to say, but this review began with the contention that “Sharknado 2” and its ilk are not unreviewable and that one shouldn't think it's silly or pointless to treat it with seriousness. 

But even if a review of “Sharknado 2” isn't pointless, a review of “Sharknado 2” posted half-an-hour before “Sharknado 2” premieres? Yeah, that's staring into a certain void. 

So time to post!

“Sharknado 2: The Second One” premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on Syfy.

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