January 24, 2017

Lake Placid (1999)

On a large lake in Maine, a marine fine and game warden is killed in the water by an unseen predator. An investigation is mounted by a team including the local sheriff Hank Keough (Brendan Gleeson), fish and game officer Jack Wells (Bill Pullman), palaeontologist Kelly Scott (Bridget Fonda) and eccentric millionaire and crocodile enthusiast Hector Cyr (Oliver Platt). They soon discover that the lake is home to a 30 foot long saltwater crocodile, which leads to the question on how to track, capture or kill such an animal.

Lake Placid is the sort of film one would describe as a 'guilty pleasure', where there ever a need to feel guilty about enjoying a film. It is a deliberate B-movie, pitting four humans against a giant, hungry and fiercely territorial monster. It has the requisite scenes of people in peril, supporting players getting bitten and murdered, and hushed theories about its origins and purpose. Where the film excels is that director Steve Miner has cast a calibre of lead actor way above what is expected for this kind of a film, and the screenplay comes from television writer/producer David E. Kelley who brings with him the self-awareness and snark that typified his popular creations like Ally McBeal, Picket Fences and Boston Legal. The result is like watching a tricked-out Holden Torana: it should be something cheap and forgettable, yet it unexpectedly - and absurdly - out-performs its expectations.

The key to the film's success boils down to dialogue and cast. Kelley's script is packed with bitchy comments and passive-aggressive insults as the four main characters grudgingly work together to track the crocodile down. Kelly is a dedicated city-liver with an intense dislike for anything involving the great outdoors. Hank is a stereotypical small-town sheriff: low on wit, quick to judge, amusingly small-minded and the butt of most of the jokes thrown in his direction. Jack is the standard Hollywood 'everyperson'. Hector is the loud, over-confident eccentric. They are all crafted in such a way that they can be paired off easily and bounce dialogue and snark off one another with ease. They are simple characters, but by casting such accomplished actors Steve Miner manages to make the otherwise basic dialogue and interplay work beautifully. (I always think of this as a Jerry Bruckheimer technique: he's formed an entire filmmaking empire out of producing stupid-as-all-hell screenplays and letting world-class actors do the heavy lifting instead.)

The film also gives Hollywood stalwart Betty White a career-changing role as a foul-mouthed, rebellious old woman who lives on the lake and already had extensive personal knowledge of the crocodile. It all feels a little old hat these days, but at the time the unexpectedly crude old woman act felt reasonable fresh and funny.

The crocodile itself is sparingly seen and effectively used. Despite coming up on 20 years old, the CGI used to create the animal remains largely very effective. To the film's credit the crocodile does basically act like a crocodile: it may be unusually large, but it behaves in a manner you would expect from an animal and not a monster.

This is a sharp, funny, small scale comedy-thriller with a great case and a sparky little script. It's short - less than 90 minutes including the closing credits - but that simply means it does not outstay its welcome. It is a knowingly silly confection: perfect for when you just want to watch a movie and have some fun.

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