MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Piranha 3D’ bites, and I mean that in the best way possible

Jerry O'Connell in "Piranha 3D": Let's just say the fish bit off a little more than they could chew.

I can’t believe I actually went to this movie.

But these are the things that people do for friends, and as it turns out, it was my friend Nate’s birthday, so a bunch of us of went out for a bite and “Piranha 3D” on opening night.

Sometimes you know going in that a film is gonna be so incredibly, unashamedly bad that it’s gonna be great on a certain level. This is one of those times. You could tell by the “quality” of the trailers on TV that this would be oozing, dripping cheese like a late-’70s fondue gone wild, and on that level, it’s a hell of a fun experience. Provided, of course, you can put up with dozens of horribly mutilated bodies.

I never saw the 1978 original, but there was no way the new one could live up to the pedigree of that one; Roger Corman was the executive director of the first “Piranha,” which was not only Joe Dante’s directing debut, but also the first screenplay by John Sayles. (And as a topper, the sequel was James Cameron’s directing debut ).

The new “Piranha,” directed by Alexandre Aja (who also helmed the 2006 remake of “The Hills Have Eyes”), has everything you want in a mindless summertime pic: actors who haven’t seen a big screen in a while, gratuitous sex (or at least tits), a predictable morality-play subtext … and massive doses of crimson gore, especially in the second half of the film.  I have a hard time seeing films where I know there will be burnt or otherwise-mutilated bodies. But here, the violence, like everything else, is played with so many nods and winks and tongues planted in cheeks that I couldn’t help but laugh — at least when I wasn’t covering my eyes.

In the first “Piranha,” the deadly fish, a mutant strain the military had been developing to use in Vietnam, lived in a reservoir on an old military post, and eventually made their way downstream to terrorize a town.

In the new version, a small earthquake hits the fictitious Lake Victoria in Arizona (played by Lake Havasu); it opens a passage to a larger subterranean lake and allows thousands of prehistoric piranha to escape toward tastier, more plentiful meals.

And the first victim is … (cue music here) … Richard Dreyfuss. This film, like the original, is an homage to “Jaws,” so why not celebrate it?

When Dreyfuss’ character doesn’t come home from a day of fishing on the lake, Sheriff Julie Forester (Elisabeth Shue) and Deputy Fallon (Ving Rhames) go out to investigate. They get more than they bargained for: what’s left of Dreyfuss (and unlike older stories, these piranha don’t clean their victims to the bone) and one of the nasty killer fish.

And, oh yeah — by the way, this is the start of spring break.

Julie brings the piranha to Doc Brown Mr. Goodman (Christopher Lloyd), the fish store owner who determines that this is a strain of piranha thought to be extinct for two million years.

Throw into the mix a teenage son, Jake (Steven R. McQueen, Steve’s grandson), who tells his mom he’ll babysit his younger siblings, but instead goes out on a boat with Joe Francis Derrick Jones (Jerry O’Connell), the slick-talking, hard-drinking, coke-addled mastermind of the popular Wild Wild Girls franchise. He needs a local to lead him to locations on the lake to shoot his latest girl-on-girl epic, and Jake is hired for the job, and brings along his girlfriend Kelly (Jessica Szohr).

Boobs fly, fish bite, fish devour — and hilarity ensues. And you’ll probably remember Mr. Goodman’s line: “The piranha hunt in packs. The first bite draws blood; blood draws the pack.”

This sets up the time-honored simplistic morality play. You know that, at some point, the packs of piranha will head toward shore, where hundreds of college-break idiots — woo-hoo girls and their douchebag male counterparts — are participating in the usual drunken, aquatic, heterosexual tribal dance. And all the douchebags will get theirs, of course, by the dozens, some in the most deliciously horrific ways that can play well for a 3D screen. And some of the good guys will meet bitter ends, too.

And you know the protagonists, in the intertwining other story line, will face life-threatening danger as they try to extricate themselves from a mindless swarm of humongous saw teeth with fins, and then find a clever way to escape.

And seriously? I’m not giving anything away. You’ve seen this all play out many times before. Besides, there are still plenty of surprises here, and words just can’t describe the scenes of death, except to say that you can imagine FX guys drooling and climbing over themselves to get on board this one. And the biggest laughs are reserved for the one thing worse than death to a card-carrying male — getting one’s cock bitten off by a piranha. (This is not a film for the kids in more ways than one. It’s definitely a hardcore R.)

And believe it or not, Aja could have made this even bloodier, even more over-the-top. Some of the victims get off easy here.

Speaking of over the top, no one has more fun with this film than O’Connell. Aside from the savage stars of the show — who are not above mugging for the camera at the most brutal moments, so you can get the full dimension of three dimensions — he gobbles up most of the attention. He’s raging full-on loud, arrogant, obnoxious, and — admit it — you’re waiting to see how he’s gonna die and knowing it’s gonna be a good one. This film is supposed to be a parody, and I don’t know anything about Joe Francis except for his Girls Gone Wild infomercials (and that’s all I need to know, really), but day-ummmm! This is one savage parody, that’s for sure.

The film was also a fun and easy paycheck for several other actors in between career momentums, but none of them mail in their efforts.

Rhames also chews up much footage, with much relish and cocktail sauce and maybe some tartar sauce, too, as he gets medieval on the fish. Shue, who, maybe a decade or so earlier, would have been one of the Wild Wild Girls, does a credible job as the tough sheriff who juggles single-motherhood (three kids), spring-break assholes, kicking ass when necessary and, on top of that, all this. And it’s fun to see Lloyd back in a frenzied mad-scientist role — but couldn’t he have prevented all this carnage in the first place with his flux capacitor or something? Then again, that wouldn’t have left much of a movie, would it?

Nate asked afterward whether, based on audience reaction, it was a sign of how desensitized we’ve become to sex and violence. I said no — it was a big goof of a movie, everyone played it with winks and nods, and he shouldn’t read anything into it. You know what you’re gonna get from “Piranha 3D” going in, and just like that frightening roller coaster, you strap in, get your thrills and then it’s over. It’s just a fun bit of mindless, gory, occasionally cheeky-funny entertainment. You know going in the film’s gonna bite, but here, at least it’s in the best way possible.

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