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VENICE – When the Australian 3D thriller Bait went into production in the wake of Snakes on a Plane, its outlandish premise earned it the informal title in industry circles of Sharks in a Mall. Combining the horror staple of a watery feeding frenzy with the timeworn ingredients of a disaster movie, this should have been trashy B-picture bliss. But director Kimble Rendall makes the mistake of taking a silly script too seriously, and the movie never plants its tongue firmly enough in its cheek to have much fun with the mayhem.
While it’s a vast improvement on last year’s atrocious 3D Jaws wannabe, Shark Night, and less formulaic than the recent Piranha spawn, Bait is a missed opportunity. It’s also a perplexing choice for the Venice Film Festival, where only the more auteurist end of the genre spectrum usually makes an appearance. The mythic proportions of the great white shark in Australian beach culture might have been expected to yield a more distinctive bite. But the pedestrian screenplay credited to Russell Mulcahy and John Kim shows scant specificity and little feel for character development or memorable dialogue, trudging through generic themes of love, redemption, resourcefulness and survival.
In the pre-titles sequence, lifeguard Josh (Xavier Samuel) is engaged to marry Tina (Sharni Vinson), the sister of his buddy Rory (Richard Brancatisano). He’s preparing to give up his idyllic life in a Gold Coast surf town to relocate with her to Singapore. Still wasted from his bachelor party the night before, Josh lets Rory paddle out in his place to check on a buoy. Chomp. Josh watches helplessly as Rory gets swallowed by one of the great whites following migrating whales up the coast. Grief and guilt cause his relationship with Tina to fall apart.
One year later, dogs are howling and birds are acting crazy, which if someone were paying attention would indicate that some major natural disaster is afoot. Disillusioned Josh has taken a job at the Oceania supermarket, where Tina wanders in to shop with her new Singaporean boyfriend Steven (Qi Yuwu).
Adhering to the classic Poseidon Adventure playbook, an assortment of characters is introduced in the calm before the storm. There’s the uptight supermarket manager (Adrian Pang) who fires store clerk Ryan (Alex Russell) when his girlfriend Jaime (Phoebe Tonkin) is caught shoplifting. The cop assigned to book her is Jaime’s exasperated dad (Martin Sacks). Downstairs in the car park, a couple of blond airheads (Lincoln Lewis, Cariba Heine) make out in their vehicle, while reluctant robber Doyle (Julian McMahon) gets ready to hold up the supermarket, urged on by skuzzy hoodlum Kirby (Dan Wyllie).
Rendall handles the setup confidently, but once a freak tsunami hits the town, trapping the supermarket occupants in rising water with two angry 12-foot great whites, the action becomes disappointingly routine. While there’s a welcome touch of wackiness as Steven gets suited up in makeshift armor made out of wire shelving and shopping baskets, the body count accumulates in standard fashion. Likewise the escape plans of the dwindling survivors lack imagination. Suspense is minimal.
More than the action, however, it’s the leaden dialogue that limits involvement. Samuel brings more natural charisma and conviction than the role earns, and there’s able support notably from McMahon, Tonkin, Russell and Sacks. But the uneven actors struggle to do much with their clunky lines and one-dimensional characters.
The Australian-Singaporean co-production is generally polished and effects work is solid, including the massive animatronic sharks. But at this point, the use of 3D to unleash severed body parts in underwater carnage movies is getting a little tired.
Bait is a mistakenly earnest effort that cries out for a few more droll touches like the growling cover of “Mack the Knife” sung on the end credits by Rendall and The Slice.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Easternlight, Blackmagic Design, in association with Pictures in Paradise, Story Bridge Films, Screen Queensland, Yunnan Film Group, Enlight Pictures
Cast: Xavier Samuel, Julian McMahon, Sharni Vinson, Phoebe Tonkin, Martin Sacks, Alice Parkinson, Dan Wyllie, Alex Russell, Lincoln Lewis, Cariba Heine, Qi Yuwu, Adrian Pang, Richard Brancatisano
Director: Kimble Rendall
Screenwriters: Russell Mulcahy, John Kim
Producers: Gary Hamilton, Todd Fellman, Peter Barber
Executive producers: Chris Brown, Ian Maycock, Mike Gabrawy, Ying Ye, Russell Mulcahy
Director of photography: Ross Emery
Production designer: Nicholas McCallum
Music: Joe Ng, Alex Oh
Costume designer: Phill Eagles
Editor: Rodrigo Balart
Sales: Arclight Films International
No rating, 93 minutes
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