If nothing else, Piranha 3D successfully lives up to its ad campaign. Piranhas? Check. 3D? Check? Gratuitous T&A and gore? Check and double check. We live in an age where exploitation movie elements are routinely mixed with top-notch production values in an attempt to create a cult classic. In some cases, these endeavors succeed – like Zombieland, for instance – but for the most part the obvious strain of creation undermines these aspirations. What makes most cult classics endearing – I’m looking at you, the film career of Rudy Ray Moore – is that their creators threw their best efforts onto the screen, with no awareness that they were creating something campy that would only be appreciated ironically years after the films left the big screen.
This isn’t to say that Piranha 3D isn’t a pleasant enough distraction to sit through. It involves a fairly routine A story – a dorky teen getting into danger and rising to the challenge to become a hero – along with a routine B story – the good-hearted, responsible, and unheeded authority figures who try and save the community from unexpected peril.
The film would have been better served if these two stories were reversed in screen time. As the resort town’s Sheriff, Elizabeth Shue is terrific balancing the roles of mother, law-woman, and action hero. Ving Rhames is fine, but underutilized, as her Chief Deputy, and Adam Scott – who in a just universe would be an enormous star – is likewise great but underused. When one of your movie’s biggest problems is that the best actors don’t have enough screen time, you’re doing something wrong.
Instead, we spend a lot of time with Shue’s geeky son as he tags along with Jerry O’Connell’s Joe Francis stand-in. O’Connell plays the role too well for the kind of movie Piranha 3D wants to be. Sure, he drinks, snorts coke, screams profanity, and degrades women, but Jerry O’Connell is too young and innately likable to break through as the over-the-top, scenery-chewing villain he’s supposed to be.
Surprisingly, the movie’s two pieces of stunt casting – Jaws veteran Richard Dreyfuss as the first victim, and a delightfully unhinged Christoper Lloyd as a local fish expert (I guess) – actually work. There’s an extended underwater T&A sequence early in the movie that basically serves to parody the kind of exploitation movies that provided the movie’s inspiration. And when the gore really gets ramped up, the extended scene of piranhas feeding on spring break revelers (along with a few instances of man’s inhumanity to man) are unflinching in their depiction of fishy horror.
The beach-side slaughter sequence might have been even more effective if the movie had spent more time focusing on Shue and less on the misadventures of her children. In addition to her eldest’s adventures with the “Wild, Wild Girls” mogul, her younger children are stranded out on an island amidst the piranha-infested lake. Unfortunately, this is the kind of movie where you know that the innocent children will ultimately survive unscathed, while the victims will mainly be the morally bankrupt members of the cast.
Just before the final slaughter, Shue and her beleaguered local police force try to get the spring break crowd out of the water and onto the safety of land. Ultimately, the party-hardy kids ignore her until the feeding frenzy begins, and if the movie had concentrated more on the difficulty she had with trying to maintain order up until that moment, the ensuing slaughter would have been granted a greater measure of tragedy.
Like a lot of horror movies, Piranha 3D lags in the second act – after the characters and the threat have been established, a number of dull subplots are allowed to play out before the action begins in earnest. Piranha 3D is a serviceable but inessential addition to the catalog of Man vs. Nature horror flicks – it gets the job done, but never transcends the genre.