By Owen Gleiberman
August 06, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

None of the shrieks, clangs, or cornball terror chords designed to goose you in a run-of-the-mill horror movie have ever been quite as scary as that moment in Jaws when the shark first lifted its snub nose out of the water. The timing was everything. Despite the way it’s remembered, that scream-worthy shock wasn’t shoved in your face. Quite the contrary — it occurred casually, without fanfare, during an off moment; it happened when it wasn’t supposed to happen. That was Steven Spielberg’s genius, and in the entertainingly trashy and derivative carnivore spectacular Deep Blue Sea, Renny Harlin, a director who will never be accused of being a genius (he made Cliffhanger, The Long Kiss Goodnight, and Cutthroat Island), mimics Spielberg’s no-warning virtuosity in cheerfully outlandish ways.

At a vast, tunnel-filled underwater laboratory somewhere off the coast of Mexico, a trio of supersharks swim around, their brains genetically enhanced by a research project that has something to do with curing Alzheimer’s. (The less said about the logic of this experiment, the better.) These nasty, machine-mouthed specimens aren’t just cleverer than your average set of jaws. They’re faster. Smelling blood and flesh, they cruise through the water like heat-seeking torpedoes, arriving at their targets with a frightening sense of purpose. At one point, after the sharks have begun to destroy the lab and consume its inhabitants, one of the apparent heroes delivers an inspirational, let’s-keep-it-together speech, thick with clichés, and just as he’s hitting his stride — chomp, he’s shark meat. The formulaic screenwriting almost becomes a knowing joke. It’s as if the audience had been set up for the kill.

As Jaws knockoffs go, Deep Blue Sea is certainly far superior to Lake Placid, a cardboard ”spoof” that makes even the amusing tackiness of Anaconda look like high cinematic style. That said, this is still the sort of movie that delights in turning its actors (they include LL Cool J, Saffron Burrows, and Samuel L. Jackson) into saps so that we won’t do much more than shrug at the prospect of their deaths. Harlin works on a pleasingly explosive scale. The many propulsive shots of cascading fireballs, metal walls being battered down, and actors in waist-deep water trying to keep ahead of ominous gliding fins end up spinning you right past the minor detail that the sharks have far more personality than the people they’re eating. B-

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