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It’s Statham vs. shark in ‘The Meg,’ and you’re gonna need a bigger popcorn

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)
A scene from "The Meg," playing at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

It’s as true in 2018 as it was in 1975: There’s no better way to beat the summer heat than a movie about a really, really big shark. From “Jaws” to “The Shallows,” moviegoers have been gobbling up flicks about treacherous fish for decades, and it’s time to meet our newest finned foe: “The Meg.” It’s the nickname for the megalodon, a prehistoric shark bigger than a tour bus, but all you need to know about John Turteltaub’s watery summer action flick is it’s Jason Statham fighting a shark. Statham vs. shark — you’re gonna need a bigger popcorn.

Based on the novel “Meg” by Steve Alten, the Chinese co-production has been smart with its cheeky marketing — “PLEASED TO EAT YOU” and “OPENING WIDE” splashed across posters of swimmers on floaties — and the film delivers on that silly-stupid-summer-fun promise, while also exceeding expectations in terms of action and set-pieces. It’s far bigger than simple one-setting B-movies like “The Shallows” or “47 Meters Down,” boasting a large international cast and several showdowns with the Meg that each are wilder than the last.

Our hero, Jonas (Statham), first encountered the Meg during a deep sea rescue mission and had to abandon two of his team members to save the rest. Blamed for their deaths and called crazy for his claims that “something was down there,” he’s now washed up and drunk on a beach in Thailand. But as the only person who has pulled off rescues that deep, he’s recruited for a mission at a research facility in the waters off Shanghai. The only reason he shows up is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is piloting the research sub that’s been stranded by a large, mysterious sea creature in a deep sea trench.

Jason Statham stars in "The Meg," playing at Regal West Manchester Stadium 13, Frank Theatres Queensgate Stadium 13 and R/C Hanover Movies.

Aboard the research facility are a motley crew of scientists and hangers-on, including father-daughter team Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao) and Suyin (Li Bingbing), man-child billionaire funder Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), various techies (Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy, Masi Oka and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), Jonas’s nemesis, Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), and of course, a preternaturally precocious child, Suyin’s daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai). Every character comes face to face with the Meg multiple times after the rescue mission punches a hole in the ocean layer that keeps the deep sea creatures away from the regular ocean creatures, and the previously believed extinct megalodon comes chomping through.

With so many characters, an established star persona in Statham and a familiar formula, “The Meg” follows and plays with genre convention in a pleasing way. If there’s anything missing, it’s character backstory, but as it turns out, that’s pretty much unnecessary here. We know why Jonas shows up, and then why he sticks around, charmed by the chatty Meiying, as well as her headstrong mother, Suyin. After that, it’s just declarations about who knows the most about shark anatomy and jousting matches with the Meg in tiny submersibles.

At one point, Jonas dives off a fishing boat with only a spear gun to fight the Meg. It’s a moment that’ll make audiences want to pump their fists, and “The Meg” knows this, as Morris utters “hell yeah” as our surrogate. That’s about the level of discourse we’re working with here, and coupled with plenty of underwater action, it’s exactly right for the doldrums of summer.

3 stars
Cast: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Winston Chao, Ruby Rose, Rainn Wilson, Robert Taylor.
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Running time: 1 hour, 53 minutes
Rated PG-13 for action/peril, bloody images and some language.