MEG 2: THE TRENCH (2023)

Meg 2: The Trench is part of My Summer of Summer Movies, in which I am attempting to see and review every movie that opens (in Chicago) between Memorial Day and Labor Day, 2023. Read all about this ill-advised plan here

At the risk of jeopardizing any credibility I may have, I will confess that I was looking forward to Meg 2: The Trench (2023), to an admittedly preposterous degree. While other critics and cinephiles were eyeing the July 21 releases of Barbie and Oppenheimer as the probable highlight of 2023's summer season, I was gleefully circling August 4th—possibly, but unprovably, in saliva—on my mental movie calendar. Friends, I've practically been counting the days.

What can I say to justify this inexplicable excitement? Only that I knew I would be two-thirds of the way through My Summer of Summer Movies marathon when Meg 2 opened, and nothing says "summer movie" to me like the prospect of watching Jason Statham punch a giant shark in the face.

I am a fan of Jason Statham—or, as we call him in our household, "The Stathe"—and I am convinced he has a great movie in him, despite the fact that he has rarely if ever made even a good one. He's a B-movie star with A-list potential, a gruff Old Hollywood throwback with a tough, wry, hangdog presence, a self-parodying physicality, and a strangely lovable unlovability. Over the past few years, my wife and I—in various let's-watch-something-dumb moods—have worked our way through most of The Stathe's back catalog, including his (enlivening, but too-infrequent) appearances in the Fast & Furious franchise, his (dumb, but occasionally entertaining) Transporter movies, and his (dumb, loathsome, and entirely indefensible) Crank movies. He has been good—and very funny—in supporting roles. (That his turn in Spy has not led to a spin-off series is baffling.) But, as a leading man, he's landed in (or chosen) one mediocrity after another.

The Meg (2018) was actually one of the stronger entries in Statham's consistently disappointing oeuvre. It was nowhere near to being a good movie, of course, but it was almost a fun one, and it seemed to understand how to use The Stathe's peculiar play-it-straight-but-don't-take-it-too-seriously charms. This, I thought, could finally be a good frnchise for him, if they'd only come up with a slightly better script and lean a little more into the humor. The Meg didn't make much of a splash—the pun is regrettable, but unavoidable—so I was surprised and delighted to see that there was not only a sequel coming, but a sequel helmed by a good director (Ben Wheatley, of Kill List and Free Fire).

All of this is just to say that it genuinely breaks my heart to report that Meg 2: The Trench is yet another missed opportunity in The Stathe's increasingly frustrating career.  Crowded, convoluted, and clunkily dull, it's nowhere near as good as The Meg, and The Meg was not very good at all.

I'm not mad, Stathe. I'm just—once again, still, and perhaps perpetually—disappointed.

All blame, surely, must fall at the feet of the screenwriters, Jon & Erich Hoeber and Dean Georgaris. This is the same team that wrote The Meg—"back for seconds," as the film's trailer warns—but they have maddeningly doubled-down on all of that film's considerable weaknesses instead of its more negligible strengths. (Between them, these same writers are also responsible for penning such cinematic nadirs as Battleship, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life, and Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, so a fresh take on the materialsci-fi novelist Steve Alten's trilogy of Meg books—might have been a better idea.)

That's assuming that there was any actual writing involved. I would never suggest that the screenplay for Meg 2: The Trench was generated largely by artificial intelligence, but here's what I will confidently say: the first A.I.-generated screenplays will not be publicized as such, and—when they come, if they haven't already—this is absolutely what they will look like. For if you dumped the screenplays for Jaws, Jurassic Park, The Abyss, Avatar, and a bunch of other stuff into a digital blender, the script for Meg 2: The Trench is precisely the kind of chunky, flavorless slurry it would churn out.

For the uninitiated, The Meg introduced us to The Trench, an unexplored area of the ocean previously hidden by a layer of frozen gas. In these hidden depths beneath the thermocline, all manner of unknown and prehistoric creatures still dwell, including the megaladon, a giant shark that lived about 17 million years ago, and which was believed to go extinct at least two million years ago. (Scientific accuracy is not something we should expect from a movie like this, but it's worth noting that the prologue in Meg 2 opens "65 million years ago," either because someone wanted to show a megaladon eating a T-Rex, or because something pulled that number from the script of Jurassic Park. But hey, what's a 50-million-year mistake between friends?)

In The Meg, legendary deep-sea diver Jonas Taylor (Statham)—Jonas/Jonah, get it?—was enlisted to rescue some imperiled researchers (and a lot of menaced tourists), after a rift in the thermocline got opened and a couple of the big beasties got out. The Stathe saved the day, developed a healthy flirtation with oceanographer Suyin Zhang (Li Bingbing), and became a surly surrogate father-figure to Suyin's eight-year-old daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai).

Jason Statham and Sophia Cai in MEG 2 - THE TRENCH

Now Meg 2: The Trench finds Jonas a single-dad to 14-year-old Meiying (Cai, again), and still working with the research station exploring The Trench, now run by Suyin's brother Jiuming (Chinese action star Wu Jing). (Suyin, we learn quickly, died a couple of years ago, and that's all we know because she will never be mentioned again. I assume Li Bingbing wisely declined to return for the sequel, and she is sorely missed here.) In his spare time, Jonas is also acting as a sort of eco-vigilante—"a green James Bond"—infiltrating ships that are dumping toxic waste into the oceans. (This sideline—also never to be mentioned again—could be a set-up for non-giant-shark-related sequels, but more likely it's just an excuse for an early and preposterous action sequence.)

On a routine underwater mission to map The Trench, Jonas and his team—with a stowaway Meiying, of course—discover a secret and nefarious mining operation, supervised by a generically evil dude (Sergio Persis-Mencheta) who naturally holds some kind of grudge against Jonas. (How anyone managed to build an entire secret lab in The Trench without anyone noticing is the kind of question we quickly realize is futile to ask in Meg 2. That would be like asking why there are so many guns aboard the research submarine, or why the film makes such a big deal of giving everyone high-tech, high-pressure cybernetic diving suits, when The Stathe can apparently swim without them at 25,000 feet of pressure as long as he fills his sinuses with seawater first.) Soon, menaced by mercenaries and marine life alike, our bizarrely heavily-armed heroes are making their way across the ocean floor to reach the secret lair, uncover the conspiracy, and blow a big hole in the thermocline so a bunch of megs can make it to the surface and eat vacationing paddle-boaters in the big climax later.

Look, the problem isn't that Meg 2: The Trench is a bigger, dumber sequel to a big dumb movie—though it is certainly that. The problem is that it's about five bigger, dumber sequels crammed haphazardly together, like if Frankenstein's monster was assembled from exploded body parts by someone who had never really seen an actual human being. The trek across the ocean floor, fighting monsters while oxygen runs low, is a dull, endless rip-off of better sequences in a number of recent movies, particularly 2020's Underwater. (That movie was better than this one, but it bombed, so Meg 2's filmmakers probably hoped and assumed we wouldn't notice the theft.) Once we get to the secret underwater base, we're in Abyss and Deep Blue Sea territory, with Avatar's stupid "Unobtainium" plot-line thrown in for good measure. Once we get back to land, we do a little Die Hard on a floating research station, before moving to the mainland for some Jurassic Park raptor fights in the jungle. (Yes, some of the creatures that escaped the 25,000-foot-deep Trench are amphibiously homicidal—not because that makes sense, but because the filmmakers wanted to do raptor fights.) Eventually, we move through enough mismatched bits and gags from other movies for rip-off roulette to come full circle, landing us on a larger but less interesting version of the exact same climax from The Meg, with the exact same endangered Yorkie, Pippen, named after the dog in Jaws.

A diver goes nose-to-nose with a REALLY big shark in MEG 2: THE TRENCH

Apparently, no one had a single original idea for a sequel, so the makers of Meg 2 just stole five or six ideas from other franchises—and a couple from their own—and threw them together without any consideration for logic or story construction. (It's kind of like going to Vegas—where a crappy version of the Eiffel Tower shares the skyline with a crappy Statue of Liberty and a crappy pyramid and a bunch of other crap—but without any of the fun parts of going to Vegas.) None of it makes any sense, and no one stolen storyline is allowed to play out: each one just fizzles away once it has awkwardly set up the next one.

And—the most cardinal sin of all for a big dumb summer movie—none of it is fun. Where the first Meg had a lightness of tone that suggested everyone knew what kind of movie they were making, this one's tone shifts inexplicably between absurdly ponderous and apathetically flippant, as if no one cared what kind of movie they were making. Wheatley—who has been a very good director of human-sized action (Free Fire was a blast)—seems absolutely at sea (sorry) when he is forced to work for hire at this scale: the action (hindered by muddy and utterly unconvincing CGI) is incomprehensible, and only in quiet, nearly static scenes do the monsters even seem menacing. There are a few scattered moments where we get the ridiculous action we might have hoped for, but if you've seen the trailer you've already seen them all.

Statham, too—I'm sad to report—seems overwhelmed and a little underwater (sorry) here: he's a charming actor when he's given something to do, but no actor could be dynamic spouting recycled dialogue while running this joyless gauntlet of tired action pieces. (The humanizing elements from the first movie—his shy romance with Bingbing's character, and his affection for little Mieying—are not here either: the first has been excised completely, and the second is given no room to breathe.) Other characters barely register at all, including returning actors Cliff Curtis and Page Kennedy, who provide the "comic relief." (This mostly consists of Kennedy being the stereotypical Black guy who says "This is some dumb-ass shit!" every time a risky plan is announced.) At one point one member of the team's head imploded, which might have been a powerful moment if I'd had the slightest idea which character it was. (I didn't, and I still don't, and what's worse I don't really care.)

When I think of my hopes for this movie—which were admittedly high, but born of extremely lowered expectations—I feel like channeling Tony Shaloub's cynical producer in Barton Fink: "Jason Statham. Giant shark. What do you need, a road map?" I don't even know how you make a Stathe vs. Shark movie this janky and joyless: all it had to be was a big and dumb and fun. But if Meg 2: The Trench proves anything, it's that doing a big dumb movie is harder than it looks, and much harder than just ripping off other big, dumb movies. Alas, this is easily my biggest disappointment of the summer, and the endless search for a good Stathe vehicle continues.

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2 thoughts on “MEG 2: THE TRENCH (2023)”

  1. Huge fan of the Stathe from back in the day – Lock, Stock, Snatch, Italian Job, (1st) Transporter – but looking at most of the last 15 years I honestly couldn't tell you which movie I was watching. Is this the one where he is an elite hitman who…. or the one where he's an FBI agent seeking vengeance for… oh yeah – he's an elite thief who….
    To your point however – at least most of these were fun, if forgettable/interchangeable. (I'm certainly not going to begrudge an actor having an extremely successful career playing to a type that IMHO hasn't lived up to his earlier promise)
    Your insights into this being an AI-generated script are likely going to be far more prescient than you hope – I can certainly envision a Hollywood that reflects the America of 2023 – increasingly polarized. The big dumb movies will get bigger and dumber. And while there will always be a place for intelligent films – they may get smaller and smaller.

    1. Zeke, "Which one was that?" is the question we most often ask about a Statham film in our house. I'd be hard-pressed to find the biggest disappointment in his career, but certainly PARKER (2013) is right up there. It had a fantastic cast (JLo, Nick Nolte, Wendall Pierce, et al), a decent director (Taylor Hackford) and Donald Westlake's relentless, ass-kicking wronged-criminal character should have generated a four-picture franchise for Statham. But the screenplay wasn't good, the tone was misjudged, and it was desperately lacking in the humor that might have made it fun. (If The Stathe would just hire me to manage his career already, I know we could find him his DIE HARD before he gets too old to make it.)

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