Deep Do-Do

Steven Spielberg learned something crucial while cutting Jaws: the fewer images he had of the man-eating shark in the first reel, the more suspenseful it made his final reel—by which time moviegoers would be so spooked it did not matter that the beastie was obviously made of rubber.

It's a lesson the makers of the TBS Superstation “original movie” Red Water should have heeded.

You'd think rubber-shark technology would have progressed in the 28 years since Jaws, to the point where the sight of the latest model would startle rather than amuse you. Blame South Africans. It turns out that Red Water's mechanical shark—the first free-moving fake shark in film history! boasts TBS—was created by two South African model makers. Why go all the way to South Africa for a phony fish? Because that's where Red Water was filmed, even though the story takes place in Louisiana.

If that makes no sense, try following the plot. John Sanders (Lou Diamond Phillips, best known for his roles as Richie Valens in La Bamba and as the real-life husband of the woman who left him to have a baby with Melissa Etheridge and David Crosby) is the captain of a fishing boat that plies Cajun-country waters. But the bank is threatening to take his boat away because he's late with his payments.

Opportunity knocks on his cabin door. The knuckles doing the knocking belong to his ex-wife, Kelli (Kristy Swanson, the Mission Viejo native who vaulted to fame in the title role of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie, and then was not even contacted about joining the TV series). She's a geoscientist connected to a natural-gas extraction project that's stalled downriver. What's gone wrong is only clear if you understand the geo-babble Swanson struggles to get out of her mouth. What is clear is that Sanders is the only one who can fix it, because as Kelli tells her ex, “You're the best D&D man in the business.” That's apparently a reference to his diving and drilling skills, not his mastery of Dungeons N Dragons.

But Sanders got out of the D&D game after taking personal responsibility for the deaths of a couple of workers under his watch. Still, if he wants to keep that fishing boat . . . and win back Kelli . . . and possibly secure a Cable ACE nomination . . . .

Sanders has more to overcome than his past. A trio of criminals headed by Ice (Coolio, with his little hair thingies sticking out of a stocking cap) are searching for stolen loot mere yards from the drilling. And that drilling is being done along a stretch of river within a nature preserve. Ah, the Bush years.

All this greed and criminality and excessive plotting can only lead to one thing: a big ol' man-eating shark being pried from the deep! A shark in a freshwater river? Nay, you say! True for all but the bull shark, which has been found up to 1,000 miles inland from river mouths, and reportedly kills more people worldwide than the great white. And I don't mean the band!

Sanders' Cajun first mate (Rob Boltin) theorizes that spirits protecting the river unleashed the beast, telling his unconvinced captain, “Hey, if the gumbo fits, pardner.” You can tell he's Cajun because of his accent and because he talks about spirits and uses words like gumbo where they don't fit.

Made-for-basic-cable-TV movies really don't fit. Unlike real movies, they must adhere to small budgets, attention-sapping commercial breaks and broadcast TV standards (little swearing and absolutely no nudity). So we viewers get bad dialogue, actors on the wane, explosions that get louder as the movie drags on, supposedly out-of-control fires with that unnatural controlled-burn look, and rubber sharks that wouldn't scare the youngest participants of a Mommy and Me swim class.

Red Water. TBS. Sun., 9 p.m.; Wed., 7 p.m.; Thurs., Aug. 21, 5 p.m.

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