Verdict: Hordes of killer fish devour hundreds of drunken partiers who are intent on seeing as many naked breasts as possible. In glorious 3D!
Grade: A+

WET T-SHIRT HOST: Come on, ladies, show me those tomatoes! Show me those… Danny De Vitos!

Midway through the extended climax of Piranha 3D, there’s a scene when comedic character actor Adam Scott grabs a shotgun, leaps on a jet ski and rides to the rescue of several nubile spring breakers while simultaneously blasting carnivorous fish out of the water. Though the idea borders on the ridiculous, it nonetheless works. Scott sells it so well that the audience erupts in a jubilant cheer.

There’s a lot to cheer for in director Alexandre Aja’s gleefully classless redo of director Joe Dante’s seminal Jaws ripoff. The first person we see onscreen is none other than Richard Dreyfuss, hysterically sending up his role of Matt Hooper in the aforementioned Spielberg shark classic. Midway through the film, we get an extended cameo by Christopher Lloyd, in full Doc Brown mode, as an aquatic life expert who delivers breathless, astounded exposition as only Lloyd can. If only he’d managed to add a “Great Scott,” it would have pulled the film even further over into pure orgasmic exploitation. But as it stands, it’s still pretty damned marvelous. Oh, and have I mentioned yet that the film is filled to the rim with gratuitous nudity and the most fake blood (80,000 gallons) ever used in a feature production? Yeah, there’s that, too.

Piranha is precisely what a summer film about man-eating prehistoric killer fish should be. It doesn’t simply embrace its nature as an exploitative nature run amok film… no, it makes sweet love to that nature, then comes back for seconds.

The plot is standard. At spring break hot spot Lake Victoria (a cinematic stand-in for Lake Havasu), a seismic disturbance opens a fissure that reveals a heretofore sealed off underwater lake beneath the existing lake. What dwells in this deadly sanctuary? If you didn’t say “tons of vicious, carnivorous fish,” then you clearly haven’t been paying attention to the movie’s title.

Tough-girl sheriff Julie Forrester (the ever-beautiful Elisabeth Shue) along with the intrepid Deputy Fallon (the ever-imposing Ving Rhames) follow a trail of individual attacks unlike anything they’ve ever encountered. They quickly call in a team of seismologists, led by Scott, and discover that thousands of the titular beasties are swarming right toward hundreds of vapid, drunk spring breakers that regularly turn the lake into a debaucherous party zone.

In the side-story department, Forrester’s son Jake (Steven R. McQueen, grandson of the coolest actor who ever lived) has been pining for fellow classmate Kelly (Gossip Girl’s Jessica Szohr) but she’s been hanging with a couple of local jock douchebags. A flummoxed Jake soon meets the hottest girl he’s ever seen (lingerie model Kelly Brook). It turns out that she’s one of the stars of Wild Girls, a series of racy videos created by sleazebag entrepreneur Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell). Derrick conscripts Jake to escort them to the best places on the lake to… well, to film nubile, naked girls drunkenly cavorting. Kelly, feeling pangs of jealousy over the fact that the boy who’s been crushing on her for years is now spending time with pinup girls, tags along.

Let me just take a moment here to address Jerry O’Connell. While the rest of the cast ably fills out their thin roles, it’s O’Connell that truly shines. His character is an obvious take on Joe Francis of “Girls Gone Wild” fame, and O’Connell leaps into the role so exuberantly that it may very well mark his career high point. He’s a blast to watch, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if his career trajectory finds him reinvented as a lovable douche.

Equally notable is the fact that this may very well be the single goriest film to ever garner an R-rating. At a brisk 82 minutes, Aja’s film culminates in half-hour climax that unveils a level of pure carnage never seen before in a Hollywood feature. Hundreds of people are disgustingly devoured as the feisty fish descend on the drunken revelry. Bodies are chewed in half, limbs are eaten down to the bone, intestines are spilled, a girl has her hair caught in a boat propeller resulting in her scalp and face being ripped off… and there’s even a close-up of a severed penis. Let me repeat that… there’s a close-up of a severed penis. That alone should tell you whether or not you want to see this film.

Visually, the film is a cinematographic treat. Aja can certainly shoot a slick movie, and D.P. John Leonetti does some of the best lensing of his career. Piranha 3D takes full advantage of its lake setting, both above and below the surface. The underwater cinematography rivals that of Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon. It may be matinee trash, but it’s well-made, nicely-shot matinee trash.

On the downside, it definitely seems to have been edited down to the bare essentials (and, surprise, a significantly longer director’s cut was released on Blu-ray) and the post-production 3D still offers proof that films actually shot in the format look superior.

Regardless, Piranha 3D is never pretentious, never dull; it knows how to have fun with its comic tone (the key is having actors who play it seriously but never stonefaced). It’s ultra-gory while still maintaining a light airiness. And it’s also the only film to ever feature an underwater lesbian ballet set to the classical “Flower Duet” theme.

If that doesn’t make you want to rush out and see it, there’s no hope for you.

Written by: Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg
Directed by: Alexandre Aja
Starring: Ving Rhames, Elisabeth Shue, Christopher Lloyd, Jerry O’Connell, Steven R. McQueen, Jessica Szohr, Kelly Brook, Adam Scott and Richard Dreyfuss

About the author

DAVID ROSIAK

David Rosiak is a screenwriter, living and working in Hollywood.