Silver Screen: Piranha 3D ***1/2

Silver Screen: Piranha 3D ***1/2
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Silver Screen: Piranha 3D ***1/2
Bryan Miller


The prince of prurience is at it again, and he's found his wheelhouse.

For French-born director Alexandre Aja, that particular wheelhouse happens to be movies about ravenous prehistoric piranhas that eat girls during wet T-shirt contests. Like Dirk Diggler says, everybody has one thing that's special about them.

Aja made a splash-- or rather a bloody splat-- in the American gore market with the wildly overrated French horror movie High Tension, followed by his English-language debut feature, the despicable remake of The Hills Have Eyes. Both movies evinced intense misanthropy and, more specifically, misogyny: High Tension equated lesbianism with insanity and posited female masturbation as a warning sign of derangement, while The Hills Have Eyes reveled in the sexual brutalization of women, culminating with a scene in which a mother watches her daughter's protracted rape. It's awful, stupid stuff, mean-spirited and steeped in adolescent nihilism, chock full of the cheapest scares available. But even Aja's biggest detractors must concede that in both movies he showed flashes of promise, evidence of a gift for both gore and occasional fits of real suspense.

Aja's latest, a remake of Piranha, is far from a wellspring of humanism, but at long last he's found the perfect dunderheaded vehicle for his lowbrow talents.

The original Piranha can barely be called original. It was dreamed up by master schlockmeister Roger Corman as a quick cash-in to ride the wake of Steven Spielberg's Jaws. In the hands of screenwriter John Sayles and director Joe Dante, however, it became a solid B-movie black comedy that was more enjoyable than it had any right to be.

Aja's Piranha, scripted by the masterminds behind the disappointing-even-by-its-own-standards Sorority Row, fronts its status as a Jaws knockoff like a bar floozy showing off a cubic zirconium engagement ring. In the opening sequence, Richard Dreyfus-- yeah, that Richard Dreyfus-- sits in a jon boat with his line in the water, idly singing "Show Me the Way to Go Home." (Get it?) Suddenly the lake floor collapses, opening up a massive underground cave filled with... well, you can probably guess.

It's a bad time for the lake to get stocked with man-eating fish, what with the massive spring-break festivities underway. Thousands of lusty teens have descended on the otherwise sleepy tourist town for a bacchanalia of boobs, booze, booze, and boobs. MILFy sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue, convincingly authoritative) ponders closing the beaches, à la a certain Chief Brody. But whereas Jaws, released in the same year that the Vietnam War ended, featured a greedy and ignorant political leader who fails to heed the warning of the men on the ground, Piranha's sheriff is confounded by the sheer number of self-indulgent kids who refuse to comply with her commands.

Jaws kept viewers rooting for the swimmers, who were innocent victims of both the shark and the city fathers' policies; the horror lied therein. Piranha, by contrast, is soundly on the side of its titular fish. These dumb, careless, impulse-driven American kids deserve every gory bite wound and severed limb, at least by the film's logic.

The ostensible protagonist is Shue's eldest son, a pussyfaced teen named Jake who's played by Steven R. McQueen. Grandson of the famous action hero, he proves not only that apples sometimes fall far from trees, but also that they can then roll completely out of sight of the orchard. Jake and his would-be girlfriend (Jessica Szohr) wind up on a party boat chartered by softcore porn purveyor Derrick Jones (Jerry O'Connell), a none-too-subtle avatar for Girls Gone Wild sleazebag Joe Francis. When the sexy shenanigans on the boat are soured by the arrival of the hungry fish, Jake must save his girlfriend, plus his two dopey younger siblings, and reunite with his mother.

That's the plot, which, of course, is completely beside the point. The real raison de piranha cinema is the endless lineup of boobs, jiggling asses, and over-the-top FX shots. Aja thankfully makes little pretense about anything else-- hence the minute-long, full-nude synchronized-swimming sequence featuring British babe Kelly Brook and adult film star Riley Steele; the wet T-shirt contest officiated by horror director and Inglorious Basterd Eli Roth; and the gore, the gore, the gore.

The middle section of Piranha is a literal orgy of sex and extreme violence. It's a debased, debauched, abhorrent spectacle-- but damned if it isn't awfully fun, like the long-lost collaboration between Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis, as produced for MTV. And while nobody is going to hold the movie up as a beacon of feminist thought, at least this time around the ugliness is doled out equally between the genders.

The cartoonish violence, the bare and barely there characters, the utter lack of seriousness, and, most importantly, the lack of rape and attempted rape, help tip the scales on this one (no fish pun intended). For the first time in his career, Aja has made a bloody trifle that's actually fun. The 3D gimmick adds a minor thrill, as Piranha proves yet again that in nearly every case 3D only benefits one-dimensional movies. That is to say, Piranha is the perfect candidate.