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Cue the Shark Music and Prepare to Be Scared

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 19, 2005; Page C01

What could make an aging, even ailing, television critic arise from his sick bed -- indeed, a bed not just sick but infected -- and crawl couchward to screen a television show? It would have to be some bold new departure in video storytelling, surely, or perhaps a tasteful new British serial adapted from a quaint old 19th-century novel?

No. The answer is much simpler. Four little words:

One fin day: A menacing shark circles spring-break babe Danielle, played by Shannon Lucio, in "Spring Break Shark Attack," airing tomorrow night on CBS. (David Bloomer -- Cbs)

"Spring Break Shark Attack."

Now there's a true dream title, the kind of thing you might expect to pop up on Cinemax in the wee hours or USA Network in prime time -- or maybe in a DVD catalogue under direct-to-video losers. But bless its old heart, the CBS Television Network is responsible for "SBSA" and has even made it the Sunday night movie, at 9 on Channel 9.

No one will mistake it for a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie.

As trash-happy and ridiculous as it sounds, the movie isn't just another load of tired old beach bunk. For one thing, the scary parts really are scary, enough so that little kids should be sent to their rooms -- where, presumably, they can watch the less menacing aquatic antics of "SpongeBob SquarePants."

As for the rest of us, we get the requisite and appealing display of teenies in bikinis as a rather small but photogenic crowd gathers for the annual collegiate rite, a sanitized version of spring break as annually covered by MTV (owned, like CBS, by Viacom) but with gushing blood more in the vein, so to speak, of CBS's "CSI" shows.

When a partly eaten shark victim washes up onshore, for example, he really looks like a partly eaten shark victim, not the scrubbed-up visual euphemism of TV times gone by. Is this progress? Well -- kinda?

At the center of the story is the fair, dumb Danielle (Shannon Lucio of "The O.C."), who ignores her parents' warnings about spring break -- "Those boys are sharks!" Dad declares -- and dashes off to join her shapely peers on the shaky pier. Director Paul Shapiro fills the screen with local color -- bimbos and hunk-lunks in full romp -- plus a rude dude with a video camera trying to make his own "Girls Gone Wild" video.

We know this lad is perverse when we see one of his tapes. Just as the young woman in the viewfinder strips off her top, the boy turns the camera on himself for a reaction shot. Somehow one feels he has something to learn about show business, even at that lowly level.

The first shark attacks are largely implied, but they become more graphic as the film proceeds. Poor Kathy Baker and Bryan Brown are the main adult actors in the picture, and in all their scenes they tend to be just in the way. Brown plays the requisite greedy businessman who thinks an artificial reef built off the shore of this small Florida town will result in a greater influx of tourist dollars.

Instead, as one might guess, it results in a massive influx of blood-hungry sharks, all of them looking for human bones to nosh on and human hair to floss with.

Director Shapiro includes the shark POV shot immortalized in "Jaws," looking up from underwater at a girl's legs bobbing like hors d'oeuvres on strings. Later, as a young woman on the pier dangles her toesies in the water, the movie delivers the first of several "yipe"-worthy shocks.

As things are really heating up in the second half, Danielle is at sea with pals ("Going out on the water is going to be so much fun," she had said -- poor, foolish child!). Suddenly, she looks through the binoculars into the distance and, astounded, gasps, "Oh, my God!"

Your critic, he doesn't mind telling you, was on the edge of the couch by now and couldn't wait for that spine-tingling next shot in which we'd see what she saw. But what the critic saw was this: "CGI" superimposed over the ocean. That meant the appropriate special effects weren't finished yet, so the poor critic didn't get to see a swarm of computer-animated sharks approaching from the distance.

Good Lord, am I going to have to watch this thing again? Oh well, duty calls.

Even without all the details sketched in, the movie still works on its own frankly silly, fitfully gripping level. When Danielle says, "This can't be happening," viewers could well be tempted to add, "And it isn't." But this is the kind of film that does not require complete suspension of disbelief. All it requires, really, is two hours to kill and a harmless lust for artificial blood.

Spring Break Shark Attack (two hours) will be shown at 9 p.m. tomorrow on Channel 9.

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